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Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 16, 2016 9:50 am

ONOMATOPOEIA

Onomatopoeia is a word for a sound—specifically, it is a word that sounds very much like the actual sound that it names. Do you remember teaching your children animal sounds? Meow, caw, quack, oink…those are all examples of onomatopoeia. Those of you of a certain generation will recall the television show Batman, with Adam West—remember the frames that would pop up during his confrontations with the villains? Bam, pow, thwack! There are sounds all around you: tick-tock, vrrrrroooom, beep, tappity-tappity, rrrrrrrring. If it’s a word meant to represent a sound, it’s onomatopoeia.

I’ve mentioned many times that poets have more tools in their toolbox than simply meter and rhyme—that the best poets choose words for their sounds and for their effect on the reader. Onomatopoeia is one of those poetic tools that poets should consider using.

Here’s a little bit from David McCord’s poem “The Pickety Fence”.

…Give it a lick
Give it a lick
Give it a lick
With a rickety stick
pickety
pickety
pickety
pick

See how the words actually sound (if read aloud) like the sound of running alongside a picket fence with a stick?

In Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman,” there’s a stanza that features a wonderful example of onomatopoeia:

Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill
The highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!

As you see, a poem may consist almost entirely of onomatopoeia, or it may use it sparingly, as a sound effect in a narrative, for example.

In prose, you’re far more likely to use onomatopoeia only as a sound effect—the distant gunshot, the phone ringing, the grumbling of a hungry cat.

Here’s a little quiz for you. Take a look at these pairs of passages:

A. Ring! Ring! Jan was awakened by the insistent telephone.

Jan was awakened by the insistent ringing of the telephone.

B. Knock, knock! Finally her date had arrived.

Jan was beginning to think her date would never come, when she finally heard a knock at the door.

In each of those sets, which passage do you prefer? I’ll bet you think that since I’m dealing with onomatopoeia, I’ll say the first passage is preferable—but you’d be wrong. In general, Jan’s Rule of Onomatopoeia is this: the less an onomatopoeic word actually sounds like the word it represents, the less you should use it as onomatopoeia. In the examples above, using knock and ring as I’ve used in the first sentence of each pair makes my writing sound immature and amateurish. That’s because the word knock doesn’t really sound like a knocking at the door, nor does the word ring sound like a doorbell.

On the other hand:

C. The rotten tomato fell at my feet with a splat.

D. There was a swish, then a whump. The bride landed at the foot of the stairway.

In prose, I think onomatopoeic words are better used as nouns (C and D, above) than as interjections (A and B).

There’s no standard rule about this, but when writing prose, I recommend that you put onomatopoeia in italics. It seems to help the reader to perceive those words as sounds, rather than as regular words. But don’t put verbs like ringing and knocked in italics—only use the italics when the word is truly used to represent a sound. (This recommendation may just be a style choice, but I’ve seen it many times. If you’re not sure, ask your editor or publisher if they have a preference.)

WRONG:

I tapped out a short story on my laptop.

RIGHT:

With a rapid tap-tappity-tap, the words of my story appeared on the screen.

HOMEWORK:

Poets, write eight lines or so that make use of onomatopoeic words. OR

Prose writers, write a few examples (like C and D above) showing how you might use onomatopoeia in your writing.

If you have a bit of onomatopoeia from your own writing that you’d like to share, feel free to like to it (or excerpt it) here. If you do this, please share a bit about your use of this device, and why you chose it.

If you have questions or comments about onomatopoeia, or ideas for future lessons, I’d love to hear them.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby Shann » Sun Jan 17, 2016 2:02 pm

A little while ago, the challenge quarter was all on onomatopoeia, a word I remember learning to spell in the 8th grade. I had fun with rewriting my history on that word with a Wrigley story. It won an EC and was the only time I came in first in Masters. I like your suggestions on italicizing the sound; it would have worked nicely there. It's been a while since I've read it, and I did cringe at some punctuation and other errors. Overall, though, if I ever get my Wrigley series out there, this one will be included. I might change the ending a bit, making Wrigley lose and not discover the connection until it was just a tiny bit late. I hope it will add to your lesson a bit, and you've given me some great ideas to think about when I do my rewrite. (Hmm, that time I said when not if!) :mrgreen:

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=45534
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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby glorybee » Sun Jan 17, 2016 2:08 pm

Thanks for sharing, Shann. That was cute!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby beff » Mon Jan 18, 2016 4:10 pm

Because this has been my life the last few months (and for the present). :helpwobble :D

Twins
Cooing here, grinning there, babies, babies everywhere.
A wah, wah here, a wah wah there, small hands twisted in my hair.
Bottles filled, diapers full, waking grandma, ma and da,
With wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, burp, wah!
Beth LaBuff

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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2016 4:19 pm

beff wrote:Because this has been my life the last few months (and for the present). :helpwobble :D

Twins
Cooing here, grinning there, babies, babies everywhere.
A wah, wah here, a wah wah there, small hands twisted in my hair.
Bottles filled, diapers full, waking grandma, ma and da,
With wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, burp, wah!


Charming, Beth!

The only thing I'd suggest you change is the first word, where the -ing kind of negates the onomatopoeic effect. I've seen some people do it like this: cooing; that's a possibility, too (but totally your call).

Thanks for your input--it's always welcome, especially on poetic matters.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby yvonblake » Tue Jan 19, 2016 8:19 am

I didn't learn the word onomatopoeia until I was an adult. I knew that there were words that made a sound, but no one had taught me the name for them. (I teach it to kids now in my classes.)

As a grandmother, I know that children's books that contain onomatopoeia are loved by kids.

Here's one of my earlier Challenge entries - Bubbles and Bricks
(http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=24670)

Looking back at it now, I see that I had my italics all backwards.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby glorybee » Tue Jan 19, 2016 9:26 am

yvonne wrote:Looking back at it now, I see that I had my italics all backwards.


I don't really think that's the case, Vonnie--don't be too hard on yourself. In your piece, the onomatopoeic bits were their own paragraphs, and there was no need to differentiate them from other words in the same sentence. It worked just fine. At any rate, my suggestion about italicizing was only a suggestion--certainly not a grammar rule.

Thanks for sharing!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby Athayde » Wed Aug 02, 2017 11:01 pm

Here I go:

A mighty lion's roar echoed across the jungle.

Woof, woof. The puppy ran towards Michele.

"Woof, woof," the puppy ran towards Michele. (?)

Thanks.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--ONOMATOPOEIA

Postby glorybee » Thu Aug 03, 2017 9:15 am

Athayde wrote:Here I go:

A mighty lion's roar echoed across the jungle.

Woof, woof. The puppy ran towards Michele.

"Woof, woof," the puppy ran towards Michele. (?)

Thanks.


Of these, the first two are excellent.

I'd never put an animal's sounds in quotation marks, as in your third sentence. But even if that was acceptable, you should have a period after the second 'woof.'
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