Some writers write prose that sounds good. The writing makes you want to read it slow, as if you could let the words melt on your tongue.

I once read some of Faulkner’s Sartoris out loud to Liz. Faulkner is known for his long, convoluted sentences and huge jumps in the narrative. Liz said, “Eugh. That’s an intense sentence. Do you even understand that?”

“Kind of,” I said. “Not really. But it’s beautiful.” The thing is, I didn’t need to understand it. The way the words sounded was enough.

Star Wars Music

Photo by JD Hancock

Here’s some vocabulary for you. The study of the sounds of words and sentences is called phonoaesthetics. Thus, someone who studies the sounds of words would then be called a phonoaesthete (isn’t that a fun word!). And when the words and sentences sound pleasant together, it’s called euphony—as opposed to cacophony.

So that’s our vocab for the day (or week):

  • Phonoaesthetics – the study of the sounds of words whether pleasant or unpleasant
  • Euphony – Pleasant sounding words and sentences
  • Cacophony – Unpleasant sounding words and sentences

How To Make Your Writing Sound Euphonic

The question, then, is how do we make our writing sound more interesting? Here are four suggestions:

1. Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of the first letter of the word throughout a sentence. Alliteration gives a sentence flow. If each letter were a color, it would be like painting with a palette of corresponding colors. Alliteration smooths out hard edges and creates smooth lines. Here’s a quick example.

Tommy took the truck to the train station.

Lot’s of repeated T’s there. Below is an example from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. See if you can spot the alliteration.

Um-m. So he must. I do deem it now a most meaning thing, that that old Greek, Prometheus, who made men, they say, should have been a blacksmith, and animated them with fire.

Did you see it? Right, the M’s throughout the sentence and a few D’s in the beginning. Try reading it out loud. See how well the sentence flows. Melville used alliteration all over the place, and he is considered one of the great American masters.

2. Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds inside of a word. The repetition of consonants (which are the opposite of vowels), especially hard consonants like T’s and K’s, tend to create cacophony rather than euphony. Here’s another example from Moby Dick. It’s a bit harder.

Ere the Pequod’s weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan…

Did you see it? I’ll show the example again with the repeated consonants highlighted.

Ere the Pequod’s weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan…

Now do you hear all those L sounds? Read it again really slow and you’ll see how the consonance ties the sentence together beautifully. The L’s almost make you feel rolly, as if you are on the deck of a ship lilting in sea.

3. Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds inside of the word. Theoretically, assonance can create mood, give you like airy feelings if you’re repeating ae and ee sounds, and deep soulful feelings when repeating oe sounds. Finding assonance is a bit harder still, but here’s another example from Moby Dick.

And as though not a soul were nigh him…

Did you see it? I’ll show it again with highlights.

And as though not a soul were nigh him…

Here, Melville repeats the ough sound, as in dough and mow. Theoretically, the emphasis of the ough sound should make you feel more expansive and soulful. However, I’m not very good at using assonance so I can’t tell you for sure. You might experiment with it.

4. The Single BEST Way To Make Your Writing Sound Better

The best way to make your writing more euphonic is to read beautiful writing and read it slow.

Here’s why. Authors don’t approach the blank page thinking, “Oh, I think I’ll focus on assonance today. Hmm… maybe I should play with Alliteration.” No. They do it instinctively, and the best way to hone your instincts is through careful reading.

Take a page or even just a paragraph of a piece of literature and read it slowly over five to ten minutes. Sound the words out as you go. Read aloud so that you can hear the words as well as visualize them.

(And then practice writing beautifully yourself.)

Reading, more than anything else, will hone your instincts for phonoaesthetics.

PRACTICE

For our practice time today, why don’t you use the chance to start something for the “Show Off” Contest.

The prompt is Christmas.

First, follow the link and pick a random passage of Moby Dick, and read for five minutes. Choose just one or two paragraphs. Pay special attention to the sounds of Melville’s prose. Let the rhythms sink into you.

Then, just write. Write about your favorite Christmas memory. Write about your worst Christmas. Write about the best gift you ever received and what made it special.

As you write, listen to the sounds and let your mind drift away. Focus on sound not meaning.

Write for ten minutes. Post your practice in the comments when you’re done.

Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let’s Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).