When I was an undergraduate I took a poetry class and found it to be pretty tough going. Mind you, I’ve never found poetry easy, but when I was just starting out I was so frustrated by how bad my writing seemed that I almost gave up altogether. I understood the technical aspects — stresses and syllables and meter — but nothing I wrote ever really sang.
I went to meet with my professor and told him I had no problem writing song lyrics (I was in a pretty cool band called Funk Bus in high school), but I couldn’t get a handle on poetry. He asked me a pretty obvious question, then — one that I should have asked myself long before, and one that completely changed how I approached my writing from then on.
“What’s the difference between lyrics and poetry?” he asked.
The obvious answer: lyrics go along with music, poetry does not. In other words, with poetry, the music has to be built in. Nothing I wrote seemed to sing because, so far, I’d just been writing words (trying to make myself sound sophisticated and poetic, of course) but I’d been leaving out the music.
Woody Words and Tinny Words
It turns out that, in poetry, the way the words sound is almost as important as what the words are saying (some would say even more important), and though I never really kept up with the poetry, I’ve found the lesson of writing for sound is also useful when it comes to writing prose.
There’s a funny Monty Python sketch where they talk about Woody Words (“Carribou. Gone.”) and Tinny Words (“Antelope!”). And even though it’s funny it also hits on a truth: words have tone, and timbre and character.
Some words are sharp and crisp, while others are soft and warm, and they conjure up these feelings just by virtue of how they vibrate in our chests, how they shape our mouths and make us work our teeth and lips and tongues (just read that sentence aloud to see what I mean).
If you want to describe a comforting fire in a cozy hovel, you should use warm (even woody) words; as a matter of fact, the words comfort, cozy, hovel and warm all fit into that category.
You might want to use some words that accentuate the action of the fire, too. The embers crack and hiss, pop and snap.
While you’re at it, maybe the wind outside is cold and biting, sharp and stinging. The snow may be crisp and bright. Shards of clear crystal hang from the frosty eaves.
You get the idea.
Sound’s Good (Sounds Good)
If you’re looking for a general guide, words that sound in your chest and stomach, or pull your mouth into an ‘O’ shape, tend to have a warm, deep character. (Think M’s, long O’s, W’s, voiced G’s). Words that make you use your teeth and lips tend to feel sharp and hard. (P’s, T’s, C’s and K’s).
That’s just in general. The real lesson here is that you should read your sentences out loud — not just to see how they flow, but also to see how they actually sound. (Who knew, right?) Listen for how well the timbre and tone of the words you’re using fits with the feeling you’d like to convey.
It may not be immediately intuitive — it may not even seem important at first — but I promise if you pay attention to the sound of your words and not just the meaning, your writing will improve.