The phrase “by ear” comes to us from the context of music. As in: "I don’t read music, but I can play by ear."
A musician who plays by ear doesn't rely on formal training or music that’s been written down, but on some innate or acquired ability to pick up an instrument and play, or to recreate what they’ve heard.
In this context, the ability to “play be ear” seems like a good thing, a special talent. A person who can play music with no formal training! Impressive, right?
Writers do the same thing, of course. We write and revise “by ear.” When our prose "sounds good" to us, we say it’s done.
There’s nothing wrong with this, to a point. Immersion and imitation are a natural kind of learning. We learn to talk by immersion in people talking—by ear—and we learn to write by immersion in what we read. It’s how we all begin.
It's when we want to take things to the next level that “writing by ear” becomes a problem.
We can learn to speak competently without formal training, but if we want to sing opera, we need to study. It's not something we can just pick up by listening.
We may have a knack for noodling tunes on the piano, but if we want to play in a concert hall, we need training.
Likewise, for writers who want to write fiction at professional level (by which I mean, reader-ready and publishable), writing by ear can hold us back.
For one thing, how can we fix the things that our “ear” doesn’t hear? How do we know when our ear is a trustworthy guide, and when it's just nudging us toward our familiar patterns?
This concept of a writer’s “ear” invites all kinds of questions about where we get our sense of what "good writing" is, what it feels like to attempt to change the way we write (and why it can be difficult), the impact of our reading habits on our own work, and more.
Let’s talk about how we develop an “ear” for good writing. Is it possible to improve our ear? Is there some writing equivalent of “perfect pitch?”
And if we don't write by ear, then what do we write by? This livestreamed talk dives into all these questions. Listen up and discover how to turn your ear into an asset.
My weekly livestream about story structure, writing craft, and the mindset of the working writer happens on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific on YouTube. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays on YouTube, or here on the blog.
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