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About Writing Right: The Blog


Describing sounds in a book or short story is one of the more daunting challenges a writer can face. How do you describe a train whistle? I mean, come on: Whoo-whoo just won't cut the mustard. Similarly, the lilting call of a cardinal or a red-wing blackbird could be described as Tweet-tweet, but that's not going to win you many new readers—or retain the ones you already have.


The plain truth of the matter is that sounds can't be reduced effectively to the written word. So, how do you create them in your writing? Simple. You don't.


Instead, you write about them, using descriptive adjectives and, yes, adverbs when necessary to plant the audible image in the reader's mind. Remember that word, image. It's crucial to good, effective writing. The train whistle might then be summed up as "The shrillness of its call sliced through the thick night like a knife through a freshly baked loaf." The bird calls could be summed up as "The chattering melodies rang out like the bells of a distant church—up and down in tone, softer and louder, always comforting."


Do you see where I'm going with this? As a writer, you can describe anything. Or, at least, you should be able to do so. Just as assuredly, as a writer or even a mimic or sound-effects person working on the most demanding Hollywood projects, you simply can't duplicate sounds through words. That's why they're called sounds and not sound-alikes or anything else.


That doesn't mean, you can't come close to imitating an actual sound, as in this case: The man swallowed hard and released an URP! that shook the entire room. Something like that might work in context not because a belch sounds like the word URP but, rather, because that word triggers in the reader's mind an image of the sound that an actual belch makes. The same is true with other cliche-ish sounds set to words, such as the CLANG of a bell or the BLEET of a car horn. But, at best, such commonly used substitutes for actual sounds aren't based upon the sounds themselves but, rather, upon previously written and widely accepted stand-ins or replacements for those sounds. Unfortunately, that also means that, as cliches, you're skating on thin ice by using them. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) You'd do better to avoid using them entirely and go back to an image-triggering description, as shown above.


"Image-triggering." That's the key. If you can trigger an actual image of a sound in your reader's mind, you'll have made your point and won him over, probably for good. It's creating effective imagery that produces good writing, not words. If you can use words to generate a strong image, you have succeeded in reaching your reader and conveying to him what you want him to know, feel, smell, hear, or sense. Use a cliche to accomplish the same goal, and you've probably lost him forever.


Simple? Sure, once you get the hang of creating effective imagery. Until then, the key is practice, practice, practice. And, of course, write, write, write until your fingers turn to stone and your eyes fall out of their sockets. Plunk!


Sounds. Descriptions. Creative imagery. They all work together to produce good writing. Try it. I think you'll like it. And quit worrying about recreating sounds with words. That rarely works.


Smoke if you've got 'em.


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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack

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