The Sound Of Words: Writing Lessons From The Birds

Frigate Bird - Galapagos

When you hear birds singing, do you listen to what they are saying?

I’m no birder. Not me. I can only identify the most obvious – blue jay, cardinal, nuthatch… Even so, my spirits lift every spring when I hear the birds singing again.

I now recognize some of the bird calls even if I can’t match call to bird or identify many of the birds I see.

One bird I call the ‘bath tub bird’ because its burbly, warbly call sounds like one of those old-fashioned whistles that kids used to play with in the bath, filling it with water before blowing. The quick chit-chit-chit of a pair of birds living in the blackberry bushes is a special delight. And the clear liquid song of another bird high in the maple trees.

This last weekend I decided to try and find out what some of these birds are. A lesson in writing humility.

Google ‘bath tub bird’ and you’ll find yourself in sites ready to sell you baths for your budgie.

‘Bath whistle bird’? Turns out kids do still play warbly whistles in the bath, but these are now extraordinarily fancy flutes and pipes. (In my day it was just a cheap plastic whistle you got – if you were lucky – in the Lucky Dip at the local village fête.)

I’ve never seen the birds that make these sounds (as far as I know) so there was nothing for it but to try to identify them by describing the sounds they made.

‘Bird that goes chit chit chit’ finds you a link to Facebook and the profiles of all people named Bird Chit or Chit Bird.

‘Bird that goes chip chip chip’? Yes! I’ve struck gold – or have I? ‘Chip chip chip’ is a precise enough description that several sites recognize it and tell me all I need to know about chip-chip-chipping birds and have recordings for me to listen to as well. Do you know how many birds include chip-chip-chip in their repertoire? I lose focus and can’t tell one chip from another.

What about our own krrraakks and chirrups and toowooo’s? What about the sounds we writers make? I’m not talking here about the scratch of a pencil, the tap-tap-tap on a keyboard or the groans of despair or shouts of triumph, but rather the sounds of the words we use in our writing.

Our cawings and warblings create very particular energies, auras and sonic movement. Underestimate what these sounds contribute to your writing at your own peril.

Writing Exercises

1. Stop once a day at random, close your eyes (so obviously not while driving!), breathe and listen to the sounds around you (I give the full instructions for this exercise in Breathing to Write).

Write descriptions of three of the sounds you heard, being as precise as you can.

  • Note where the sound falls in the range of: loud-quiet, long-short, high-low, dark-light, soft-sharp, wavery-jagged-smooth…
  • Reproduce the sound with letters of the alphabet (nonsense words).
  • What else (who else) makes a sound like this?
  • What does the sound remind you of?

2. Open a manuscript you’re working on at an evocative description or an exciting moment.

Read the paragraph out loud. Listen to the sound of individual words and then to the sound of the flow of words.

  • Do words use heavy sounds (d) or light (t)?
  • Do they use sounds that speed up (fix) or slow down (loose)?
  • Are the sounds at word beginnings and ends sudden or soft? (brick, donkey)?
  • Does the series of words in the sentence tail off or come to an abrupt stop?
  • Sounds create rhythms. What about the rhythm of the way the words come together? The easiest way to check is to read aloud what you’ve written. If you hesitate, stumble or run out of breath or are forced to stress the wrong word, the rhythm is off.

Writing is nothing but putting words on the backs of rhythms. If they fall off the rhythm, one’s done. Virginia Woolf

How do these sound details affect the immediacy or drama or atmosphere of the sentence? How do they create hesitations, make the reader slow down or speed up? Is there any word or combination of words you could use to heighten the effect you want? (Need help in getting to know sound values of consonants and vowels? Go to Rachel Lindley’s excellent post on EveryPoet – The Sound of – um – well- Sound)

This can be dangerous territory for a fiction writer, especially in the early stages of writing your story.

The temptation – certainly for me – is to get too precious with sound effects. You can get bogged down and never finish. If you do finish, your reader can get bogged down and never finish.

On the other hand, I do think it’s important to be ear-aware to your words because the sound of them (even if read silently) does have an impact on your reader. I regularly return to exercises like these just to ‘tune up’ my ear and then I let them go, hoping the awareness and sensitivity towards sound will be working on a subconscious level as I write! A read-out-loud helps me check the sonic flow in the final drafts.

The cloths were strewn on the grass. Cardboard crowns, swords made of silver paper, turbans that were sixpenny dish cloths, lay on the grass or were flung on the bushes. There were pools of red and purple in the shade, flashes of silver in the sun. The dresses attracted the butterflies. Red and silver, blue and yellow gave off warmth and sweetness. Red Admiral guttonously absorbed richness from dish cloths, cabbage whites drank icy coolness from silver paper. Flitting, tasting, returning, they sampled the colours. Virginia Woolf in ‘Between the Acts’

Some resources:

EveryPoet: The Sound of – um – well – Sound – terrific explanations of sound values. You’ll want to become a poet.

Earbirding – Describing what you hear. You’ll want to become a birder.

Head-Fi – I especially love ‘decay’ and ‘smeary’ as sound descriptors on this site for audio buffs.




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