Sound Revision Strategies
Adjusting the Volume in Your Writing Workshop
In This Post
4 Sound-centered Show-Don’t-Tell Tips for Sharpening Sensory Details
Is your teacher quest for sensory details buried under an avalanche of adjectives? If this sounds like your writing workshop, read on for a sonic-powered escape plan.
With an ear to honing sense of sound descriptions, this post will share strategies for guiding upper elementary & middle school writers through the revision process. Plus links to resources you can use in your class right away.
Note to Newcomers
If you’re new to the writing workshop and/or working with tweens, this lesson for grades 3-5 from the National Geographic Education Resource Library is a good generative activity for drafting soundscapes. The tips below focus on revision.
Tip 1: Reach for Action Verbs
All four tips here are just really variations on this one. Let’s look at an example so I can show you what I mean.
Here’s something a pair of fifth-graders wrote in an early draft of their comic, Drex & the Eighth Dimension:
The palace is made of glass and shiny. There are birds all over. Then there is an explosion.
In this scene, we know there must be noise because there is an explosion, but explosions can sound lots of ways, so readers don’t have anything specific to visualize here. (Or, auralize?)
To get these writers on track, I don’t ask them what the explosion sounds like.
Here’s why. Most kids will respond to a prompt like that in one of these three ways:
1. With a stative verb (like be or have) + an abstract adjective, for example:
It was loud.
It is scary.
The room had a lot of noise.
Again, “loud” or “scary” noises can sound a million different ways, so this won’t create much of a soundscape for the reader.
2. With a stative verb + abstract adjective-dependent simile, for example:
It was loud as thunder.
He’s quiet as a mouse.
Cliches like these get repeated so much they “tell” more than “show.” And as with the examples above, the vague adjectives and lack of action verbs here paralyze the descriptions when what we’re after are sentences that move.
3. With a stative verb + a slightly more concrete adjective or onomatopoeia word, for example,
The sound was thunderous.
There was a bang.
Here, we get a little more descriptive, but still, nothing that moves.
In this post, I mention how tweaks to teacher talk can point kids toward more nuanced and precise descriptions in general, and I rely on the same technique when I teach approaches to rendering sensory details, specifically.
Instead of, “What does it sound like?” or “Describe the sound,” I say, “What is the sound doing in your scene?” In other words, what verbs name what your sound does?
Now, let’s look at what the authors of Drex & the Eighth Dimension did with these instructions (and these word banks) when they got to work revising the passage above. Here’s the published version of this snippet, along with the illustration it appears with in comic book form:
Instead of “explosion,” now we have “a boom,” and not a boom just sitting there after a be verb, a boom that takes action.
This boom scatters.
Oh, and look at the last sentence: now there are echoes. Again, not just sitting there. These echoes “fly.” Which might be a stretch, but I’d take a slightly psychedelic description like this one over a boring be verb any day.
Now this scene is a dynamic place where things change and move. We’re hooked. Tell us more!
Tip 2: Honor the Onomatopoeia Obsessions... But Do It Strategically
In my writing workshop, there is no shortage of interest in onomatopoeia - the grosser the better - so reluctance to experiment in this area is not usually the issue. The problem is the opposite: an over-reliance on ham-fisted booms or screeches in spots that call for shading and precision.
Sometimes the extent to which Splat! and Bang! move a scene or stanza is a matter tone. What works in an homage to Captain Underpants won’t cut it in the sci-fi & dystopian graphic mini-novels some of my fifth graders write.
Challenge kids to make their cracks & whacks do work by using verbs the way the boom does in Drex.
For writers who just love sound effects, the opportunity to consecrate their final drafts with brightly colored crashes and funny-fonted whams can sometimes work as motivators to put in the descriptive work first.
Tip 3: Find the Filters
Filters are “sensing” verbs like sees, can tell, notices, and when it comes to soundscaping, hears, and sounds like. Teaching your students to cut filters is one more way to point them toward action verbs.
For a quick explainer on how filters junk up sentences you want to show with words that tell, check out this video from ShaelinWrites.
Again, the trick is in tweaking your teacher talk. Instead of asking, “What do you (or your character) hear?” or “What does the scene sound like?” shift the
the prompt to something more verb-provoking, like, “What does the sound (or thing making noise) do?”
Essentially, this is the same as Tip #1 plus reminders like, “Cut your filters.” Hone your students’ filter-finding skills with this Quizizz. (Open in something besides Chrome. Quizizz gets buggy on that browser.)
Let’s look at another example. Here’s a sound description from an earlier draft of The Black Lork, Issue 4: Dotted-It Citay by a pair of sixth graders:
BunHun and his house poof away just as suddenly as they came. But Alice can still hear his voice.
This draft has a nice verb - poof - describing the image here, but the sound is muzzled in a filter. The narrator “tells” us Alice “can still hear” BunHun’s voice, but there’s no action, nothing to “auralize.”
Check out the page of the published comic where the revision of this passage appears (below).
Now, this character’s voice “hangs around” - an action that both communicates plot and modulates tone. A voice that “hangs around” transmits a sort of creepy-ish vibe, consistent with BunHun’s trickster character.
The authors tried out a few other verbs before they landed on “hangs around.” In another draft, they had BunHun’s voice “piercing Alice’s ears,” but the authors decided that sounded too much like jewelry, and that the verb “pierce” was a bit harsh for BunHun, who is ethereal and creepy but not violent.
This one’s really part of cutting filters. Again, it’s all about the verb redirect. Let’s look at another example from The Black Lork, Issue 4. Here’s a sentence from an early draft:
Alice hears the creature coming back.
Again, the “Alice hears” filter kills an opportunity to add sensory details that bring this creature to life. Now take a look at the page of the published comic where the revision of this passage appears (right).
Along with some suspenseful imagery, we get, “Something’s stomping toward her” plus some sound as dialog (“Roar”).
Instead of naming the source of the sound - “the creature” - we have the sound verb itself - “stomping” - a single word that does so much work in this sentence. It gives us hints at the creature’s shape and size as well as a peek at its emotional state. If this creature tip-toed or slithered, for example, we’d get a much different picture.