Sonic Writing: Build Your Sound Appeal in English (part 2)

Here's part 2 of Sonic Writing: Build Your Sound Appeal in English. You can read part 1 if you missed it last month.



Speed. Readers love it.

However, they also enjoy slower, more thoughtful passages, which allow them to ponder the meaning of what the writer has chosen to leave on the page.

One way to match the tempo of your writing to reading intention is to use ‘bell curve’ paragraphs.

This means using shorter sentences at the beginning and end of paragraphs, and longer sentences in the middle. This not only provides variety for the reader, but makes the paragraph topic nice and clear. It’s best to add heavier details in the middle before concluding with impact.

Here’s an example.

❌ This report will outline the findings from our author questionnaire. The survey was sent to our top-earning international clients. This includes writers from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The findings have been broken down into four sections. There are recommendations included for next year’s author-relation policies.

✅ Recently, we sent a questionnaire to all contracted authors. The aim of this annual report is to gauge the satisfaction of our top-earning international clients and to use the findings to inform future policies. The data has been broken into five sections and includes recommendations on possible changes to client management. The findings are below.

And don’t forget about the other major speed control for your writing — punctuation.

By adding more punctuation, you slow the reading speed, and by constructing sentences with less, you leave the reader free and clear to shoot forwards.

Consider that each punctuation mark affects reading speed in a different way.

“If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a “ rolling stop ”; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.” Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools

Takeaway point: plan your sentence lengths and punctuation to make sure the reader follows your text at the speed you want.

Sonic Techniques

Crash, bang, wallop!

Including sensory information is one of the easiest ways to transform flat text into an engaging read. Yet too often, writers focus on the visual. Allowing the listener to ‘hear’ the words on the page makes writing come alive.

I’m talking about onomatopoeia.

Hiss, squelch, pop, rustle. These words were invented to mimic the sound they describe.

When using words like these, consider pairing them with something unexpected.

The hiss of a broken television

The squelch of week-old birthday cake

The rustle of bums on seats

‘Sonic words’ often include plosives—consonant sounds made by completely blocking the flow of air as it leaves the body, normally followed by releasing the air.

‘b’: percussive, slightly harsh (bash, bang)

‘d’: a thicker, flatter sound (thud, drip)

‘g’: harder, guttural (gong, go!)

‘k’: impact, collision (crash, clang)

‘p’: softer, air-based (puff, patter)

‘t’: a lighter, sharper sound (tick, titter)

One way to employ this sonic writing technique is to use consonance (similar-sounding consonants in close proximity) or alliteration to create a sense of insistence. Repetition within a paragraph speeds the tempo — like a repeated note in a piece of music.

Alternatively, use dissonance (contrasting sound palettes) to reflect contrasts in the narrative, to disrupt the flow, or to enhance the emotional depth of a particular moment.

This technique can even liven up business emails and add urgency to sales copy. Check the example below:

❌ The fair will happen next month in the main hall. Which stand would you like to have?

✅ The Berlin Book fair takes place next month. There are several packages on offer. Which one works best for you?

Of course, I would warn against stuffing your text with these sound techniques. The reader should never become aware of the little tricks you’re using to keep them hooked.

Takeaway point: before using these techniques, identify key areas of the text where you need to draw the reader’s attention (e.g. the headline).

Tripwire Sounds

Just as the sound of our words can boost effectiveness, it can also hit a bum note with readers. These are the instances where readers ‘trip over’ phrases which are tricky to pronounce or include unintended repetition of sound.

Check your texts for these ‘tripwire sounds’.

Neighbouring sounds — ones which are similar, but could not count as alliteration. These are often found in tongue twisters:

e.g. How can a clam cram in a clean cream can?

Was that easy to read?

2. Unintended alliteration or consonance

Unless you want to draw attention to the deeper meaning of the sentence, sound techniques become a distraction.

❌ There are multiple methods for maintaining military records.

✅ Military records are maintained in a variety of ways.

3. Repeated word endings

Watch out for consecutive words which use the most common English suffixes (-tion, -ity, -er, -ness, -ism, -ment, -ant, -ship, -age, -ery).

❌ Applying for training funding can lead to frustration and exhaustion.

✅ Convincing your boss to increase the CPD budget is never easy.

Remember, opposites attract. Avoid awkward pairings.

Takeaway point: check your texts carefully for unintentional sound techniques and awkward pairings.

When writing in English, consider syllable count, rhythm and metre, tempo, sonic techniques and tripwire sounds. Don't just write sentences, write music.


Technical Corner

Do you struggle with 'formal' and 'informal language? It can be hard to know which category English words fall into.

Linguists have identified four different levels of formality in English (plus a bonus one that you don’t really need to worry about).

Formal Standard English

Used for speeches, lectures, and situations with no interaction. Little personal emotion or opinion is expressed.

Example: It is my both a pleasure and an honour to welcome our esteemed class of 2022. Mothers and fathers in the audience, you should be proud. Graduates, you are progressive, upstanding and valuable members of society. We congratulate you today.

2. Consultative Standard English

Used for news reporting, emails to employers, and applications. Used in contexts with strict editorial procedures or for relationships governed by strict social protocol.

Example: I am writing to apply for the Dickens Scholarship as I believe I meet the criteria for selection and would make an excellent contribution to the conference.

3. Casual Language

Used for faster digital contexts (social media/blogs) and messages between friends. Typified by loose sentence structure and vernacular speech.

Example: I wasn’t sure what you wanted for dinner, so I made a quick pasta dish. Is that OK?

4. Colloquial / Intimate Language

Used between close friends, family or partners. Typified by slang, pet names, inside jokes and non-grammatical abbreviations.

Example: Did you see the Spurs game? Absolute joke! Our defence has got more holes than a sieve. FML.

The ‘bonus’ level of formality I mentioned is known as ‘frozen language’. These are set phrases due to legal wording (e.g. wedding vows, receiving your rights after arrest).

If you'd like to know exactly how to identify the formality of words, check out my full guide on Medium.


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