The ticktickticktick staccato of sleet on my roof last night got me thinking about sounds in writing. Writing that appeals to all five senses has potential to reach readers better than single-sense writing in many cases. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for works that focus on one or two senses or three senses, but don’t miss out on the full array of senses just out of laziness.
Using multiple senses is not just for creative writing. Obviously journalism uses multiple senses, but it can also be useful in academic writing (when appropriate in your discipline).
So what is onomatopoeia? Other than a word I always have to look up the spelling for, an onomatopoeia is a word that represents a sound. There’s a large vocabulary of standard onomatopoeia that we share in our culture. Just pick up a children’s book, and you’ll see them–chirp chirp ruff ruff moo moo ribbit ribbit. Sometimes these are good enough. Since they are parts of a shared vocabulary, we can often overlook that they aren’t always accurate representations for sound and mentally produce the correct sound.
But sometimes the best course is to create your own onomatopoeia. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The one in the first sentence of this post isn’t. I just said that sleet makes a tick sound on my roof. It’s a quick, assertive, repeated sound, so I put a few ticks together and added that it had a staccato rhythm.
Though it isn’t necessarily complicated, it does help to practice. I like to sit somewhere with my eyes closed for a few minutes then write about all the sounds I heard.
The following is an excerpt from a poem I wrote called “Louis Armstrong on His Bicycle.” The poem describes a homeless man who is sitting on bicycle outside of an Italian restaurant and starts “singing” along with the live Jazz music that can be heard on the patio.
Live Jazz pours out of the Italian place
onto the patio
where he now leans his bike.
The smoky beat fills him.
He belts out
in that throatysmooth voice
Ba ba da de doo
Ba ba da de dum
Have fun exploring the use of sounds in your writing. And we’ll all practice spelling onomatopoeia, in case it shows up in a New York Times crossword puzzle.