When I write, I hear music. In the words, that is. Some writers play favorite music in the background while writing. I don’t. It distracts me from hearing melodies as they emerge from the page.
I can trace my awareness of word rhythms to the beginning of my professional writing career decades ago, in public radio. I was a producer/reporter, first covering the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield, later working as a news director for a new NPR affiliate in Worcester, Mass., then reporting in-depth series for a consortium of NPR stations in Massachusetts and New York. Over those five years, I learned to think and write in terms of sound. Radio scripts are, by definition, aural. You have to read your words out loud. If they trip your tongue, it’s time to revise.
After my public radio stint, I switched to print journalism. I also began teaching feature writing at Clark University. When you teach, you must decipher how you do what you do, so you can explain it to your students. Before, I had simply relied on my ear. That was no longer good enough. Teaching writing, I had to articulate what was intuitive, which had the added, unexpected benefit of learning to refine my own approach to sentences. I became more aware and intentional about varying length, using precise diction, where to place what, when to break rules.
While writing Line of Flight, I discovered Virginia Tufte’s magnificent Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, which gives thousands of examples of how different sentence structures affect meaning and sound. In the midst of final rounds of revisions, before going to sleep, I would read a few pages of Tufte and let her lessons incubate overnight. When I returned to the computer the next day, inevitably some of her wisdom would filter into my editing decisions, to the manuscript’s betterment.
Currently, while working on Novel 2, I’m reading Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Not all his sentences are short, but they appear on the page as free verse, broken into phrases. Know what your sentences actually say is his mantra. To do so, begin with short sentences. Cut all the excess. And: “Pay attention to rhythm, first and last.”
To find that excess, to ensure that my sentences in Line of Flight meant what I intended, to revise and revise and revise the rhythms, I reworked one later draft by reading the entire manuscript aloud. Even as I always hear my sentences in my head, that process was essential to getting the music right.
Writing well is never straightforward. Squeezing a first draft out of your heart and mind, for me, is both an elating journey of discovery and a struggle that I’ll find a dozen excuses to avoid. Revision is my favorite part of the process, uncovering the story I want to tell, ensuring the sentences say exactly what I mean. The final pass, making wordsong, is pure joy.