MFA Nugget: Are You an ‘Ear’ or an ‘Eye’ Writer?

MONTPELIER, VERMONT — Do you write with your eyes or with your ears? I write with my fingers–it’s a lot easier to type or grip a pen–but sarcasm aside, I learned a good insight on creative writing in my workshop here at my MFA in Writing residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It involves the four key elements of storytelling, and how writers tend to favor some over others.

David-Jauss.mediumI’m in a joint fiction-creative nonfiction workshop this time–six students from each genre–and one of our faculty leaders is award-winning fiction writer and poet David Jauss. We were discussing a compelling short story by one of the students, and Jauss noted that the piece was heavy on thoughts and reflection, while scenic details were sparse. He speculated the student was an “ear” rather than an “eye” writer.

Any story, whether true or fictional, has four key elements, Jauss said: thoughts, dialogue, action and description. A writer who writes a lot of dialogue and thought–inner dialogue–is a writer who perceives the world through the ears. A writer whose prose is heavy on action and description is someone who sees that scene.

Just about every writer, Jauss said, leans one way or the other. But you should focus on including more of what you don’t automatically include. “Ideally,” Jauss said, “readers shouldn’t know where you lean.”

I’ve been reflecting on this a fair amount, and I think it’s fair to say I am an “eye” writer. That surprises me, because I’ve always favored reading Hemingway’s dialogue over Faulkner’s description, but I realized the essay I wrote that won the Sidney W. Vernick Award contains a great deal of visual description and action but perhaps only three or four total lines of dialogue. That said, I did force myself to include an unnatural amount of thinking (reflection), because I’m focused on developing that skill here at VCFA. (As to Hemingway v. Faulkner on description, Hemingway actually was great at visual details, but did so with spare prose. Speaking to you as a former journalist, I suspect Hemingway’s skill in that area came in part from the demands of news editors with tight word limits.)

So I ask you again, are you an ear or an eye writer? And do you find yourself making an effort to include more of what you don’t do naturally, or is part of your writing style favoring some elements over others?

20 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Are You an ‘Ear’ or an ‘Eye’ Writer?

  1. madiebeartri

    I’m trying to be a better writer….I’m slowly improving. I’m not sure about the eye or ear thing. I think I am an eye person.


    1. Aren’t we all trying to be a better writer? I think that is the essence of being a writer. 🙂

      It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? It’s also possible we change over time, or lean one way or the other depending on what we’re writing. I’m still tossing it around in my head.


      1. madiebeartri

        I want people to find a connection with the words I put on the page…I want the images of the story to play out in their heads. I want them to be sad the last page of the book has been read.


  2. I am definitely an ear writer! Although I would add that it’s not just because I perceive the world through my ears but because I process the world between my ears and spend a lot of time thinking about the significance of things, as opposed to observing them deeply in a visual way. I make a conscious effort to be more visually observant because usually I’m too wrapped up in my own thoughts to notice much about what I’m looking at. Have you seen that video where a guy in a gorilla suit walks through the scene and most people don’t even notice? That would be me (the person who doesn’t notice, not the one in the gorilla suit).

    I wonder how this fits in with being a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner. Did Jauss mention anything about kinesthetic writers who perhaps emphasize physical sensations and actions? You mention the eye writer includes a lot of description and action, but maybe there is a finer distinction between an eye writer, who focuses on visual description, and let’s call it a “body writer” who tells the story mainly through the physical actions and sensations. Just speculating. 🙂

    I’m sure we could also explore how using one type of writing over another affects the reader and could be consciously used in crafting the piece to guide the reader’s experience of the story. Much to think about!

    In any case, it’s a great reminder to thoughtfully include all of these perspectives and not rely too heavily on any one of them.


    1. What a thought-provoking comment, Sue! I like in particular your question as to how one vs. the other might influence the reader differently. As to the kinesthetic, he didn’t mention that, and I find myself wondering what kind of writing that would be. I suspect when he says “ear” or “eye,” he is grouping existing storytelling elements more than saying a certain type of learner writes in a certain kind of way, although one would expect correlations. This wasn’t a lecture, but rather an aside in workshop, which i quickly jotted down. It’s a good question, though.

      Love your gorilla suit parenthetical!


  3. Good post, Patrick. I lean toward the ‘eye’, using more description in first drafts, and finding subsequent drafts in need of internalizations. I like both Hemingway and Steinbeck, and wouldn’t want either to be different. While brevity can be pleasurable at times, it isn’t necessarily ‘better’, although there surely is a lot of chatter about it being the ideal these days. Perhaps the fascination with stripped down prose is simply that most writers aren’t capable of more expressive writing and wrongly assume brevity will somehow be easier (no way!). I agree there should be some balance, and try for it myself.
    A style of writing that will usually make me put a book down is the all dialogue type – it’s exhausting to read. Having to infer story from conversation is not an easy read, and although some writers set out to tell their stories this way, very few are masters of it.
    Happy New Year, and have fun with your residency. 🙂


    1. Happy New Year to you as well!

      You touch on something I am seeing a lot of as well, this notion of stripped down prose. I would make a distinction between that and tight prose. The stripped-down school of thought seems to be that we don’t have the capacity to read extensive phrasing the way we once did, and I think there’s something to that. But it does not then equate that a writer should deprive the reader of details that will add to both the sensory experience of reading as well as an understanding of character, setting, plot and theme.

      Last semester I blogged about a lecture defending detail, a rant if you will against what you raise:


  4. This is very intriguing,…I find it really hard to decide on this one… I love listening to ( eavesdropping on) other people’s conversations, and sometimes record them! I think a lot, I describe a lot…

    Am I an eye, or am I an ear? Sounds like a psychological game!

    I do sometimes feel I’m like someone who plays the piano by ear… I can’t read the music but I do it any way, as far as I am able! I write and rarely change or correct anything( apart from the typos) I can’t remember a single thing abut grammar…so it has to be by ear…but this is not what you’re talking about…

    I agree with you about the distinction between stripped down prose and tight prose.
    And then I go back to read Annie Dillard, and it’s the detail up-on detail, the exuberance, the arching imagination and amazing vocabulary and above all the inspired connections and allusions which add up to her masterly prose and unique voice.
    Each to his own, I suppose.
    I love your thought-provoking blog….


    1. Valerie, I’m so glad you appreciate The Artist’s Road, and consider it thought-provoking. To me this is a selfish exercise where I can spew forth all of the questions that vex me, then steal the wisdom of readers. But I like your way of putting it as well! 🙂

      Interesting insight on how you approach music. When I was a musician I could “play by ear” as well, to the extent my mastery of the instrument permitted, and I was good at picking out parts in complex compositions. To this day, when I listen to popular music, I often don’t know the lyrics (even though I was a singer) but I can provide the bass line or the rhythm guitar chords or the drum part. But that doesn’t seem to go into my writing as much, for whatever reason. Much to ponder.


      1. Hello Patrick,
        I didn’t express myself very clearly about music!
        I was using it as an analogy for writing… I don’t know any “rules for writing” can hardly remember any grammar, parsing analysis etc, but just write as it were by ear… does this sound right,? is my only guide when writing…


  5. I chime in from the Ear side of the desk. I too am intrigued by this observation and by the comments here. Curiously, however, I straddle Jauss’s categories because while my writing tends to favor thought and reflection, I also heavy-load the description. My work has definitely gotten stronger from more scene and showing. I think some of this depends on the genre. Personal essays tend to have less scene and action; fiction more. I continually am amazed by stories with very little action — Tessa Hadley’s “Journey Home” being a recently read example — as with any piece of writing that bends the “rules.” Thanks for this.


    1. Hi Lindsey! Ooh, I like that you have a different mix of the two separate from his eye and ear pairings! In some respects, if you have four ingredients, you’re going to get different permutations of combinations.

      I like your focus on genre. I definitely see your CNF/fiction distinction, and of course you can further filter within, say, fiction, say between a character-driven story and one advanced more by plot. I’m not familiar with “Journey Home” but am always open to new reading suggestions!


  6. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire Residency in One Tasty Bite | The Artist's Road

  7. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 01-10-2013 « The Author Chronicles

  8. Pingback: Senseless Description: When Your Writing Doesn’t Feel Real | The Goose's Quill

  9. Pingback: Senseless Description: When Your Writing Doesn’t Feel Real

Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s