Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

Choosing and arranging words according to their sound can intensify meaning and create rhythm in a sentence; the degree of musicality you employ will depend on the intended mood and tone of your writing.  Geraldine Brooks’ opening paragraph in ‘Year of Wonders’ (2001) awakens the senses and, at the same time, foreshadows a tragic story that begins in the mellow autumn of 1666:

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins.

Not only is an image painted in words—bringing to mind the ‘Haystacks’ series by French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet—but a musicality is captured in the sounds of the words: we can hear the “rumble” of apples “tumbling” into the bins … we can taste the “tang” of the “sap still speaking”.  Sounds, smells, taste: this is sensory writing about the joys of nature by the narrator whose voice engages immediately with the reader.  At the end of the novel the reader is brought back to life through the season of spring:

I knew then that this was how I was meant to go on: away from death and towards life, from birth to birth, from seed to blossom, living my life amongst wonders.

… an eloquent and rhythmical sentence evoking the wonders of life: from birth to birth.

Ah yes, alliteration. Excuse my indulgence, but here’s an example of the way alliteration intensifies meaning through sound: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last sentence of ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1925): So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  Note those repetitive “b” sounds that capture the essence of the cycle of life.

We all write down our thoughts and ideas or what we want to communicate with a sense of urgency. Whether we’re writing a short story, a review, an essay, an email or a speech, we all know it’s important to read back over our work and edit.  If you really want to pack a punch in a particular sentence then first decide what tone you want to convey, then take time to listen to the actual sound of the words. You may find that you change a few words to create a phrase that intensifies the rhythm. If you work at it you’ll develop your own brand of musicality—your own voice.

Of course, it’s easy to become obsessed with the musicality of prose; but writers with an ear for rhythm can turn a mediocre piece of writing into a sharper one just by asking themselves if they can improve the sound of their sentences.  All you have to do is listen in your head as you write or, better still, read out loud.  If you listen well to the sound of words as they flow together, and learn to substitute words if necessary to improve rhythm, then you will produce better writing.  Read and write with your senses: keep your eyes and ears alert.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.

(Truman Capote, 1924-1984, American writer and author of ‘In Cold Blood’)

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Framing with Paragraphs

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