Prosody

I have always had the suspicion that having a sense of rhythm matters to writers.  When I’m revising, I sometime find myself fixing things—adding a word, taking one out, substituting a longer word or a shorter word—just because it sounds better.  It’s not a matter of meaning or being more accurate, but of finding a pleasing sound.  In fact, I’m not thinking logically or even pursuing a clearer image.  It’s almost a knee jerk action.  I’m fixing the sound of the sentence or phrase.  

I believe that writers listen to the lilt of their words and while revising, often work to make that lilt sound pleasing. I believe the word for this pleasing sound is prosody.  Do you find yourself doing this?

29 responses to “Prosody

  1. I share ear space with an office worker that has an adolescent infatuation with the word, essentially. Every day, every hour, this word will fall into one of his sentences like a needle landing in gouged vinyl. Essentially, everything can not be essential. It’s probably a good thing I do not keep whiskey in my desk, or I’d be in the bag before lunch after playing a private drinking game with Mr. Essential.
    In revising my own work one sorry afternoon, I was stunned that I had penned his recurrent utterance in essentially three of my own sentences. Has this ever happend to you?.

    • Funny!! Oh yes, I’ve done that before, much to my chagrin.

    • I’d pay him back in kind. Start tossing the word “galumphing” into your conversations. Mention how you were galumphing over the weekend or how you just finished your third galumph. If he asks you what it means, just raise one eyebrow as if, of course, this is common knowledge.

  2. Yes. Frequently. I have Rodale’s 1400 page Synonym Finder and page through it searching for the word that sounds right. Soft, hard, gentle, vicious. Always the word that sounds right.

  3. Hi gullible!
    I guess what I have is a “word cold. ” Mr. Essential fell in love because it was the exact fit for the exact moment. It felt so good he kept it and coughed it out so many times, I actually caught it. I’m trotting out to the store today, and a 1400 page book will be in my shopping bag. I can get that at the pharmacist, right?

  4. Howdy all,
    I spent many years writing radio commercial advertising. Everything I wrote was for oral interpretation. Prosody (I didn’t know there was a name for it) was an enormous part of that. The same feeling has crept into my longer pieces as well. Song writers and poets are good at it. Here’s a link to an ancient poem by a man named Vachel Lindsay. He did it pretty well.

    • Dang, I wish I could hear this loud enough to rock the walls. Thanks for posting it, FigNatz.

    • Gully, that wasn’t me. Fred’s picture is much better-looking than I am. But I can see why, knowing my background, you might have thought it was me admitting to past sins anonymously.

      Coincidentally, I was writing the following:

      Hi Fred – like you, I’m an old radio commercial writer, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Writing for the spoken word not only teaches one rhythm and cadence, it also engenders a focus on expressing dialogue so that even on the printed page different characters speak with different (and believable) voices.

      But I think the main advantage of writing advertising for radio is the discipline of selling – it’s one of the few areas where the writer has a limited number of words/time to work with, so every single word has to count.

      And of course, somewhat uniquely, advertising requires the writer to start at the end – you’ve already decided what the final line must be, so when you start at the beginning you work towards leading inexorably to that pre-established conclusion.

      • If you say so, Fig. However, same background, technical knowledge to post a video clip here, esoteric knowledge. Sounds like Fig to me. I, too, used to write radio commercials, but I was only 21 and certainly didn’t know what I was doing, nor did I like it one little bit.

        As for other writing, I find I have a tendency to write poetry in meter–usually four foot lines. Oddly, if I’m writing a quatrain, the third line has a nasty habit of gaining a foot or two. Iambic pentameter is unnatural and awkward to me.

  5. I won’t even send an e-mail or post on FB without reading what I’ve written to see if I’ve gotten my point across in the best way possible.

  6. Ann, were you asking for yes and no answers, or did you want examples?

  7. I’d rather have nice long answers. I want to hear how you write. I like to talk about the process since we all have a lot in common and also do somethings very differently.

    BTW, Fred is NOT FigMince. He is a great guy who just finished BWW recently. I was delighted to see him here. How odd that he and FM have so much in common! Small world.

  8. Which brings up something else: if we write prose with a certain cadence, does that not put the piece in danger of being read thus: dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM, etc.

    As the brothers Fred and Fig say, writing for the spoken word is far different, apparently, than writing for the reader. Especially radio/TV in which getting the message across is more imperative than style.

    I wonder if claim that most adults are more comfortable reading at 7th and 8th grade levels is true of writing for the spoken word, be it advertising, songs, or stage?

    I hope some of this makes sense. Not my best day today. I’m hearing noises in my head and cellophane crackling in my ears.

  9. I’m not saying cadence as in meter (da DUM, etc.). Let me see if I can come up with an example:

    ~She typed all night working on her memoirs, until she had ten whole pages.~

    ~She sat up all night working on her memoirs, and by morning she had typed more than ten pages. ~

    Now, there are no grammar mistakes in the first example, but the second one is a lot smoother. Is this something we hear?

    • Actually, Ann, I’d suggest that your second example would work even better as:

      ~She sat up all night working on her memoirs, and by morning she’d typed more than ten pages.~ (Aren’t tildes classy?)

      By smoothing out the ‘she had’ into a single syllable, the accent on ‘typed’ feels much more natural to the inner ear. Well, in my opinion anyway – it’s certainly what I’d have done if the line was to be spoken.

  10. I agree. You use the phrase, “feels much more natural to the inner ear.” I guess this is what I’m getting at. This is not something you learn in a grammar book or even a book on writing. It has something to do with pleasing sound or hearing how the accent or emphasis hits the right word.

    How do we learn this? Is it a talent (not a word I’m very fond of) or perhaps experience?

  11. Maybe there is a way to study and practice prosody. Dorothea Brande in her 1934 classic Becoming a Writer, puts it this way. Chapter 10 on imitation.
    “Again it may be that you feel that your writing is monotonous, that verb follws noun, and adverb follows verb, with a deadly sameness throughout your pages. You are struck by the variety, the pleasant diversity of sentence structure of the author you are reading. Here is the real method of playing the sedulous ape: The first sentence has twelve words; you will write a twelve word sentence. It begins with two words of one syllable each, the third is a noun of two syllables, the fifth an adjective of three, etc. Write a sentence with words of the same number of syllables, noun for noun, adjective for adjective, verb for verb being sure that the words carry their emphasis on the same syllables as those in the model. By choosing an author whose style is complimentary to your own you can teach yourself a great deal about sentence formation and prose rhythm in this way.”
    Worth a try?

  12. I think that’s very helpful, Fred. However, let’s say you never to this kind of exercise. Where does the sense of “sounds good” versus “sounds clunky” come from, beyond the easily-identified repetitive sentence formation.

    For example, why did Fig know the contraction “she’d” sounds better in that sentence than “she had”? When do we learn what pleases our ear? And how? It is from reading a lot? Clearly it’s not a grammar issue.

    Intriguing issue!

    • I think it’s probably experience, Ann, but that doesn’t mean one has to spend forty years writing radio to learn how to do it. In my case, I would read my scripts out loud to time them, and started noticing words and phrases that didn’t sound as good as they could. And after a while, I could inwardly hear those bumps as I wrote them, and the whole thing became second nature.

      Here’s my convoluted take on this subject:

      Language is the spoken word. The printed word is merely language presented on a page. Language is unconsciously changed by cultural and geographic happenstance to form ‘dialects’. All dialects, just like water running downhill, smooth out any bumpy bits over time as a matter of course.

      When we write dialogue, we try to make it sound authentic for the character. Note the word ‘sound’, not ‘read’. During writing, dialogue can easily be ‘authenticated’ by being spoken out loud – or even better, acted out.

      And of course, one voice doesn’t fit all. One character’s ‘Unfortunately, this doesn’t sound at all like me.’ is another character’s ‘You think I talk like that?’.

      Okay, what about narrative? With first-person, it’s obviously quasi-dialogue anyway. But third-person narration, however dispassionate, is still effectively a character relating something to the reader. The narration should have its own distinct character voice, and needs to come to the reader’s ear sounding/feeling as authentic as any other character.

      Basically, I think the problem even many published writers make for themselves is that they try to write ‘proper’ English, rather than tell their stories in their own natural speech patterns (or, as I said, the speech pattern of an imagined character).

      End of ramble.

    • Ain’t it interesting that sound and balance are carried on the same nerve? I don’t know anything but I was reading the posts and some ideas started whizzing through my head. I think humans are wired for 4beats-4measures, most music is in 4/4 time. And there is the heartbeat theory, that we spend 9 formative months listening to mom’s lub-dub, except you test tube types, you know who you are. I also think that humans started out singing first, then talking. Maybe not actually singing, but a rhythmic yelling, yodeling type noise, (kinda like the way I sing now,) after the grunting fad died out. I have no empirical evidence of this, I just like to say things. But isn’t prose derived from prosaic, the dull and direct adulteration of poetry? I am convinced that humans are predisposed to do everything with rhythm,(especially Catholics.) That’s why I proofread my writing aloud, so my eyes and my ears can integrate. Not physically, that is, neurologically, maybe. Imagine Marx singing the Communist Manifesto, in G major.

      • annlinquist

        Dave Brubeck wrote a piece with eleven beats per measure. I forget which one it is (and I’m not home to check), but it is a real challenge to count the beats as he played. Waltz time (3:4) sounds pretty natural too, don’t you think? Why do musicians and listeners love “the break”? I’ll bet our ancestors were banging sticks together before they were forming words. I know a person with no sense of rhythm (can’t keep a beat) who writes like dream. So many mysteries.

      • I love that piece, I think it’s called Take Five. There are lots of variations on the theme. But I am convinced of natural rhythm pulsing through every human: Exposure to mom’s heartbeat, our own heartbeat, even our spinal fluid flow has a rhythm, (I studied Cranial-Sacral Therapy for that one.) Relax today and check your pulse, I bet you can sing Onward Christian Soldiers to it. Or Long Black Veil. Or some 4/4 tune. That reminds me, I have to change the batteries in my pacemaker.

  13. Do you suppose it starts when we’re young and read/are read rhyming books like Cat in the Hat. We hear the cadence but appreciate it more as we get older. I always read my stories and poetry out loud to hear how they sound. Poetry especially. I’ll work on a verse until I feel I’ve gotten the rhythm of each sentence to work together. For writers, perhaps it is an Innate sense, kind of like rhythm for dancers.

  14. Gullible,
    Nothing esoteric about the Vachel Lindsay posting. I just copied and pasted the web page address, and the machinery of this website grabbed it from You Tube and plunked here.

    Fig,
    Another thing we had going for us was the ability to record. Music and sound effects played a major prosodic(?) part in those spots. I’m not experienced enough as a standard prose writer to have even an elementary understanding of the subject. Thanks for your insights.

  15. Eons ago, well at very least 30 years ago, I was a radio announcer and voice-over talent. I had to read what you copy writers wrote. I wish I had you writing for me at the time, because, my writers didn’t understand “sounds good” at all. I was constantly changing their copy so that my voice could sell it. Good copy is indeed an art form.
    Before I took Ann’s BWW, I had written many motivational speeches and stage presentations. I wrote in my own voice, my own speech patterns, to make the program feel natural. Writing for a reader was an adjustment, absolutely. But what Ann made me understand is that you can merge good, interesting and imaginative writing with your natural tone and cadence and that is the best marriage of all. Thus ends my two cents worth. This was a good discussion to read, now I’m going to read it out loud to my puppy (she thinks she is an accomplished critic) and see if I can hold her attention, of if she thinks we are all a bunch of high- minded bores who suffer from insominia. I’ll let you know what she says. Good Night All.

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