“Hearing” your manuscript with a reader’s ear
As you polish your manuscript, you will likely review it numerous times, looking for ways to improve the content, style, and presentation. Some experts suggest reading a hard copy in addition to reading the manuscript onscreen. Have you also discovered the benefits of reading your work aloud, or listening while someone else reads it? “Hearing” our writing helps us to function more like part of the “audience” so we can experience it more objectively. Listening is a good way to spot grammatical errors, gaps, weak transitions, inconsistencies, and phrases that aren’t clear.
Careful sessions of reading aloud are especially good for polishing and perfecting the writing style. The listening process can reveal sentences and paragraphs that are choppy, awkward, or monotonous, along with word choices that are not precise or powerful enough. Once you identify such issues, the following tips can help you improve the rhythm, flow, and emotional impact of your sentences.
TIP 1: Watch for groups of short fact statements.
A series of single-fact sentences can create an awkward, boring sound we want to avoid. Combining more than one fact to form fewer sentences can improve the rhythm, help to connect the ideas better, and create a specific mood.
TIP 2: Check for sentence variety.
This is closely related to the previous tip. A lack of sentence variety, in terms of construction as well as in length, can sound choppy and monotonous. Do too many of your sentences begin with the same parts of speech, often a subject-verb or subject-verb-object combination? Also beware of starting consecutive sentences, or several sentences in one paragraph, with the same word (e.g. The, A, But, Then, As, He, She, or a character’s name). Other common pitfalls include too many sentences with verbs that end in “ing” (gerunds) or adverbs that end with “ly.”
To add variety, start some sentences with verbs, clauses, adverbs, or prepositional phrases. But take care here as well, because too many winding, complex sentences can sound unnatural and make writing hard to follow. Once again, your ears can help you decide.
Now for some examples, starting with this fiction passage:
Sloane wondered why Cora wasn’t at work. It was 2 p.m. and she still hadn’t come in. Nobody had explained her absence. Cora might be sick or at a meeting outside the office. She might even be on vacation. Sloane hoped Cora hadn’t decided to quit. Cora’s friendly, helpful ways made the job bearable.
You can see and hear the problem here—a string of separate facts stated in a similar way.
The passage sounds boring to the ear, and it lacks emotional impact.
Sloane glanced again at the clock: 4 p.m. and Cora still wasn’t at her desk. Was she sick, at some meeting outside the office, or maybe on vacation? Why didn’t anyone explain her absence? Please, please, don’t quit! Sloane thought. Without Cora’s friendly, helpful ways, this job would be unbearable.
This nonfiction passage needs work for similar reasons:
In ancient Egypt, male and female adults wore wigs and other false hair. Wigs offered protection from the sun and a form of personal adornment. Older people wore wigs to conceal gray hair or baldness. Wealthy Egyptians owned several wigs. Their wigs featured curls, braids, and ornaments. Other special touches included fragrance. Enslaved people were not allowed to wear wigs.
In ancient Egypt, adults of both sexes wore wigs and other false hair for protection from the harsh sun and personal adornment. For older Egyptians, wigs also concealed gray hair or baldness. Wealthy Egyptians owned several wigs, featuring curls, braids, ornaments, and other special touches, including fragrance, while laws banned enslaved people from wearing wigs of any kind.
The second version combines facts into three sentences instead of six. Further, the final sentence compares the situation of two different classes of Egyptians (wealthy and enslaved). Also notice how different wording makes it possible to remove “and” when combining the first two sentences. We often need this conjunction but can find creative alternatives to avoid over-using it.
TIP 3: Vary the speaker tag lines in dialogue.
“What’s going on?” asked Martin, frowning.
“Don’t ask me; I just got here,” said Blair.
“It looks serious,” said Philip.
“I wonder what we should do,” said Rand. He scratched his head.
Martin looked out the window and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Who knows? I just got here,” said Blair.
“It looks serious.” Philip said.
“I wonder what we should do?” Rand frowned and scratched his head.
A combination of action sentences and standard speaker tag lines adds variety to this second passage. Of course, too much variety can distract the reader and sound contrived, so avoid using myriad words for “said.” You don’t want your characters to exclaim, query, chide, suggest, complain, persist, remark, worry, shout, proffer, and advise, all in one scene.
TIP 4: Vary paragraph lengths on the page.
A mixture of short, medium, and long paragraphs adds eye appeal and keeps readers alert and engaged. Paragraph lengths can also set the pace for a scene. Occasional one-sentence paragraphs can be effective in scenes when they fit the content and mood.
TIP 5: Structure sentences and paragraphs to create the mood you want.
Is your character happily resting on the beach during a lazy summer afternoon? You will choose different words and sentence structure than you would for a scene that revolves around panic, grief, rage, or suspense. A tense, chaotic scene might call for short sentences, sound-effect words, fragmented thoughts, and one-word exclamations. For a joyful scene, we can choose words and craft sentences that produce an upbeat sound and rhythm, along with a joyful meaning.
When it’s time to polish and perfect, remember that using your ears along with your eyes can lead to a smoother and more engaging style. Author Dave Madden writes, “Words and phrases don’t just come to you in the rush and heat of the first draft—you imagine them. In the more deliberate, conscious process of revision, willfully imagine, line by line, other possibilities.”
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised and polished a 230,000-word book for adults.