Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | April 9, 2013

The Author as Musician – Revision: The Importance of Fine-tuning Your Manuscript

05 - Mike's guitarWe’ve been visiting our daughter and son-in-law in North Carolina. Our son-in-law has been teaching himself to play the guitar, and his acoustic guitar sits on the floor, propped against their china cabinet. The sight of that guitar got me thinking about music and sound and how integral they are to our lives – including to our writing.

If you’ve ever seen an orchestral performance, you probably know that before a performance begins, the musicians in the orchestra spend time tuning their instruments. Though it may sound like meaningless noise to listeners, no orchestra or band can skip this vital step. If all the instruments are not in tune with each other, the resulting discordant sound could spoil the performance. Even people who have never played an instrument can recognize when the sound is off.

All instruments need to be individually tuned as well, some more often than others. Instruments like the piano require periodic tuning by a professional, while other instruments – like the guitar – are tuned by the musicians themselves before they play.

When I was a teenager, I got an acoustic guitar and taught myself some chords. I bought a guitar pitch pipe, which sounds the correct pitch for each of the six guitar strings. Since I don’t have perfect pitch, I quickly discovered that I could tune each string to what I thought sounded right, but if the pitch was off only a little, the chords sounded awful. If a pitch pipe is not available, another way of tuning a guitar is to set the bottom string – an E – to the (hopefully) correct pitch and use that string to tune the others. That should result in a guitar in tune with itself, even if the original string is not exactly tuned to an E. The top string on the guitar is also an E (at a higher octave), so if they’re played together, they should produce the same tone. That doesn’t always happen if you haven’t gotten the pitches of the intervening strings precisely right.

When revising a manuscript, an author, like a musician, needs to pay attention to sound. Since I also write poetry, I naturally tend to think more about sound when I write, but that doesn’t prevent me from making errors in a draft. All of us do, and even our beta readers and proofreaders may miss such things. At some point, most authors will give readings from their works, so the sound of the words is important. In addition, with the rising popularity of audio-books, a book needs to sound as good as it reads silently. For these reasons, we need to make sure our work sounds good.

So how do we find mistakes in sound? Many published writers advocate reading the manuscript aloud to hear the sound of the words. Reading aloud makes word repetitions more obvious. It also reveals awkward phrasing or word combinations that silent reading misses.

Another aspect of sound to think about when revising is to consider the voices of the main characters. Those voices should be consistent throughout a manuscript. Jonathan Maberry, mentor to our Advanced Writing Workshop, takes the time to do a read-through of each main character’s scenes to make sure that the character speaks with the same voice from beginning to end, both in spoken and mental dialogue (unless something in the events of the story cause a major change in the character).

Fine-tuning your writing is a vital step in revision. What methods do you use to fine-tune your manuscript?


  1. I agree with how important the SOUND of your words are. Even when we read to ourselves, we hear the words in our heads. But I always wonder how much this matters to people who have been deaf from birth. They have no experience of what it means to rhyme, or what a homophone is. Do they respond more to how the words LOOK on the page?


  2. Great observations! I am also a poet as well as a prose writer, and I’ve found that reading a draft aloud makes me aware of such things as repeated words and awkward phrasing.


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