Sounding it out

By Tyler Nestvedt

One of my favorite writing exercises that I’ve ever done was to play with the phonemes of a word, and considering how bored we all are in quarantine, I thought I’d share it with you all so you can have a bit of fun with it at home.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A writing utensil
  • Something to write on
  • An active imagination

How to do it:

Start by coming up with a single word. While it can be a multi-syllabic word, it might be easier to start with a shorter word. For example, the word “baritone” could be used, it would be easier to use “ride”.

The next step is to change one phoneme in the word. For those who don’t know what this is, think of it as the basic element of sound. For example, “ride” has three phonemes in it: the “r” sound at the beginning, the “i” sound in the middle, and the “d” sound at the end. They aren’t equivalent to syllables, rather just sounds. So, for this step, all you have to do is change one of them. For example, if you choose to change “ride” you could change it to “lied” or “right” or “road”.

Write down both words in the order you came up with them, and then, using the word you’ve come up with, change it again. If you want, you can add to it or subtract from it. For example, if your list went “ride”, then “lied”, your next word could be “slide” or “lie”. The only rule about these changes is that there can only be one change done at a time.

As the list is made, try to vary what changes are being made. For example, if you’re doing the “ride” list I’ve made so far, avoid simply rhyming words with “ride” to come up with your list. If you want, you can apply the rule that the same phoneme can only be changed so many times in a row.

Now, you should repeat this process until you have a list of about thirty distinct words, it can be more if you feel like making more words, but thirty is a good amount to stop. With this list, you can begin making a poem where you have to use at least a third of the words in your list. Therefore, if your list has thirty words, you should use at least ten of the words in it. Don’t use any of these words more than once, and if you want to do a challenge run, use as many of the words in the list as you can to make up the poem.

At the end of the exercise, you’ll have a poem where you’ll find multiple repeated sounds that you may not use as often.

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