Wednesday, November 3, 2010


by Margaret Birth

As a writer, poetry has always been my first love. Growing up with a dad who was a professor of Renaissance English literature and who wrote a book called LYRIC FORMS IN THE SONNET SEQUENCES OF BARNABE BARNES (Mouton, 1974), I was fascinated by the multiple meanings and the rhythms and the patterns to be found in poetry. When poet Ardis Kimzey spent a week in my junior high English classroom, that old childhood fascination quickly developed into a passion for the written word—especially for poetry.

I was a young adult before I began to develop my skills as a fiction writer too. After all, poetry doesn’t pay a lot of bills, unless you’re teaching about it in addition to publishing it—and I wanted to be a writer, not a teacher. Eventually I fell in love with short story and novel writing too; those have their own multiple meanings (think of goal, motivation, and conflict, and how they’re developed and interrelated), rhythms (as we authors try to avoid the so-called “sagging middle”), and patterns (story arc, anyone?).

It took awhile—but I finally realized that I could use what I knew about prose and prosody to make the two overlap and strengthen each other. Since then, my poetry has taken more of a narrative turn, and my fiction has taken on certain poetic qualities.

How can you use poetic techniques to enhance your own prose?

● Pay attention to word lengths and word rhythms. Groupings of one- and two-syllable words sound staccato—perhaps indicative of anger or impatience. Groupings of longer words sound more mellifluous—relaxed, maybe even romantic.

● Realize that punctuation can also affect the rhythm of your prose. Commas (,), periods (.), semi-colons (;) and colons (:) are all punctuation marks that suggest brief pauses, while dashes (--) and ellipses (...) indicate longer pauses; these can contribute to making the rhythm in your prose either rushed or relaxed.

● Read your stories aloud, and listen to how your words sound. Ejective consonants, such as Q, T, P, K and S, sound sharp and aggressive; bilabial consonants, such as B and M, and labiodental consonants, such as F, V and W, sound melodious and gentle; long vowels generally sound strong, and short vowels tend to sound soft. How your words sound can affect the tone of your story.

● Use a bit of alliteration, consonance, or assonance in your description, in order to paint a vivid picture—of a character, a setting, a feeling, or an action. Alliteration is the repetition of the initial consonants of words (“too, too terrible”); consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds within words (“ringing, clanging, singing”); and assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds (“obnoxious, off-color song”).

● Push your pace forward by making use of rhyme. Whether “straight” (for example “ambles/shambles”), or “slant” or “off” or “approximate” (interchangeable terms used to describe rhymes that aren’t exact, as in “shore/char”), placing rhyming words close together in a sentence can be a subtle way of communicating urgency.

● Intensify the power of your imagery by including similes and metaphors. A simile says that one thing is similar to another thing (“a voice like a squeaky hinge”), while a metaphor suggests that one thing substitutes for another thing (“her eyes were sapphires”); both techniques provide two images in one.

While none of us may become another Shakespeare—or even Barnabe Barnes—we should always strive to improve the quality of our writing by using whatever techniques we can find that complement our talents.♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor. It's all of this experience on both sides of the publishing desk that has inspired her column, "The Write Stuff," which has appeared regularly in RWANYC's newsletter, Keynotes, for the past ten years.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous advice and wisdom, Maragret. I have long been fascinated by using words for their sound along with their meaning. It is a great fun puzzle to come up with just the right word and sentence structure. In editing my first MS, I learned very quickly about changing the pacing by changing the punctuation and sentence length. My favorite anecdote about the sound of words is the one about Shakespeare using a lot of "s" sounds in the speeches of his villains, Iago and Richard III, to enhance the reptilian-like sound of their speeches and create an evil sense in the listeners mind.

    That's why reading out loud can be so helpful when going through a MS.

    Studying dramatic literature, too, can help you see how playwrights use their words to effect for atmosphere and emotion as well as conveying what they want to say.