Improving one’s prose in minutes #1: The power of words – Issa A. Dioume

Writer’s are often confused about what they can do to improve their prose and they don’t like hearing a person saying how things should be one way and not any other, so I simply try to give a few tools in a casual manner and in a way meant to be as understandable as possible so things feel natural, not forced, and not pedantic and definitely not ‘The’ way, simply a way some have approached the craft. After all, improving one’s prose can be easy! It should be easy!

Have you heard about onomatopoeias? I imagine that you have. Well then, what about onomatopoeic words? These are words which partially function as onomatopoeias, but not entirely. For example, an onomatopoeia for a cow would go a little something like this: the cow ‘moos’ because it imitates the sound of what you hear right? Or dogs go ‘arf’ and sheep go ‘baa’.

But one can use onomatopoeic words for these, like cows which ‘low’ bulls which ‘bellow’ or ‘bleat’ for calves. These are onomatopoeic, because when you pronounce ‘bellow’ even though it’s only a part of the word which functions this way, you end up with an ‘o’ shaped mouth when pronouncing the final part of the word and your voice is grave during (fitting for bulls, because they have deeper voices as males). However, ‘bleat’ is used for calves because the manner in which they produce sound is different. Because of the -ea- sound, you will use a higher pitched voice while reading it, even in your own head, and this is because, generally, the younger the animal is, the squeakier their voice will be (squeaky works for mice too, it obtains a high pitch with the same sound). The sound of the word is thus partially imitating what you are describing. Partially. Using this type of words is useful to make the images you, as a writer, convey to readers, clearer in their mind. After all, a writer can truly draw lines and paint colours in the mind of one’s readers. A simple example (with lines) works for certain shapes. Have you ever notice how the words for some of the shapes are pronounced? They too reflect what they are about, except this time it’s structurally: a triangle for example. How many lines do you need to make a triangle? 3 right? Now, notice how the word itself is pronounced: tri-an-gle. Three parts. Three again! Coincidence? Nope. Onomatopoeic words come from Greek. English has borrowed a lot of them and they are super useful. Another shape which does that: a ’round’ or a ‘circle’ ⭕️. Listen to what the words do in your mouth. Say it slowly to understand. A round goes around (around is another onomatopoeic word like ‘about’ because of explanation which follows) and again makes your lips create an O. A s-qu-a-re can be cut in four. This works for a lot of words like bounce, flicker (the -fl imitates movement of flames 🔥 on the tongue, like a flick), howl, shudder (makes your lips tremble), grind( -gr imitates the act grinding but using very strong sounds which are growling), to hum, a jab( the word is short because the act is short). You have to find the words. Now, next time you read a book, try to see how the authors use words like these. And here is a test to see if you get it, find the onomatopoeic words in the following sentence: ‘His throat constricted. He could feel an overwhelming, grating sensation begin to amass and spread throughout. Time was ticking. He was late. Too late, perhaps.’ (I will answer in bottom messages to confirm whether you found the words)

Whenever you are not sure how to edit your work, this is a good thing to ask oneself. How much do my words help paint a picture in the mind of my readers? How well are my words picked? Do they reflect the image or idea I wish to convey in the best possible way? Can I create my own sound patterns and meaning? In ‘to the lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf, for example, Woolf employs an -ea- sound and an-o- sound to imitate the ascent and descent of nearby waves in the prose, even when the characters are not talking about waves at all. That effect can be done with other techniques, of course. For example, an extract from a published piece of mine: ‘He waits for the waves to recede.’ If you listen to the sounds you can notice a repetition, the -wa in waves and waits. They mirror each other, and relay the idea or feelings of more than one wave hitting a shore by the repetition of the sound. It helps emphasise waves and the quantity of them. It’s a simple technique, and can quickly change how new writers approach prose, but one which is rarely discussed online (most writers like keeping techniques secret). If you care about the sound of your prose though, it is essential you know this, but you do not have to apply it obviously, because it is only one possible too out of many other noteworthy ones. What matters most in a story, is the story. This is just for prose.

5 thoughts on “Improving one’s prose in minutes #1: The power of words – Issa A. Dioume

  1. While I agree with you that onomatopoeia has its place in creating an image, I think there’s a big overlap here with word association. We say that S words replicate the snake and its connotations, like serpent, hiss, sneaky, sinister, secretive, surreptitious, but what about slug, sloth, sunny, soulful? Yes, you can (on paper) chop up the word square into four bits, but why would you? We still pronounce it as one syllable. Triangle is three syllables, but then so is rectangle, polygon, hexagon, pentacle, in fact most geometric figures. You can make the word ‘square’ go round in the mouth just as easily as the word ’round’, in fact the d sound at the end of round has a difiniitve stop to it whereas the r sound lingers. I tend to think association is more important than the origin of a word. Take ‘billow’ for example. We talk about billows of clouds, think soft and fluffy like pillows, but the words have completely unconnected meanings. I think you can find coincidences everywhere if you really want to look, but the reader of a novel isn’t going to stop and admire your cleverness when they’re trying to follow a plot. It has to be seamless, invisible, and I don’t think you get that if you’re thinking of writing as being a series of ‘tricks’ and techniques. In poetry, where every word counts, yes, the notion of making the word say more than its dictionary definition is appropriate, but most of the time, the big problem of keeping a reader on board isn’t the subtle ‘finitions’ it’s the substance, content and plot. The rest comes later.
    In your little test, the only really onomatopoeic word I heard was ticking. grating could be, but there’s no context so grating doesn’t give a definite image. What I would say is that this piece is an example of using words like ‘feel’ and ‘beginning to’ which are to be avoided as they muddle the phrase, distance the reader from the action and risk losing their attention.

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  2. Thank you 😊 so much Jane! This is super helpful and constructive – the best kind of comment. I will answer soon! Currently on a trip through Scotland. In the meantime you can check Herbert Read’s ‘ English prose style’ book. It explains things in a way clearer fashion! Of course this isn’t the way, it’s a way of writing, and an old one at that. 🙂 But I’m not inventing anything here, it’s a stylistic idea studies since years. I meant to say it influences readers unconsciously, of course they don’t stop 🛑 to see what you, the writer, are doing. A good story is always the core of it all 🙂 it’s simply for stylists. Thank you again! Will make sure to make things clear when I get back!

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  3. I’m glad I didn’t come over as sharp. I wanted to reply before the children arrived and I’d be occupied. I’ve been writing on and off for almost fifteen years, and I know I’ve got better, mainly, I’d say through reading good literature and contrasting it with badly written fiction. Once you start to see a pattern, to see why one book is crumby and another is superb, it rubs off on your own writing. Emulation and avoiding action 🙂 Have a good trip in Scotland!

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