Although I have very little formal training in writing, I am a talented writer. I do not write based on grammatical rules or by parsing sentence structure to fit the mold of what is “standard” written English. I have little knowledge of what is “correct” and would more than likely do quite poorly in advanced composition classes. I believe the source of my writing ability to be a childhood love of reading and an innate respect for language as an art, which is precisely why I majored in Spanish.
One of my favorite authors is Stephen King, which is supposed to cause me shame as it betrays my “common” sensibilities. I confess that a good deal of his plotlines are not even that interesting to me, but I stick with his books because of the way he writes. As a very young reader, I stumbled upon a copy of Carrie at a garage sale and begged my mother to buy it for me. Thankfully, she encouraged my precocious reading habits and did so. As I read it, I realized I had no idea what “fornicating” was and I did not understand why Carrie had blood trickling down her leg, but I was hooked by the writing itself. It was plain and matter-of-fact – almost conversational – and it drew me in. It felt as though it was not trying to be flowery and to impress readers with the intelligence of the author, but rather invited me to just sit down and hear Mr. King tell me a story.
After reading Revising by Reading Aloud. What the Mouth and Ear Know, I was finally able to voice just what I have always loved about King’s writing. He is not writing AT you, but rather speaking TO you. I believe that a main reason why he is often dismissed by academics is because he is not writing “standard” English. He is writing in his speaking voice in such a way that you can imagine he would actually say those words aloud while talking to you. It reminds me of a joke about writing, which is “Never use a big word when a miniscule one will do.” I believe adherents to “standard” English view writing as a structure which is built upon carefully constructed and regimented thoughts organized in a uniform way, which is probably why I received a “C” in the “easy” English class I took in college, which consisted of parsing sentences and constructing paragraphs into a rigid end product.
Language is never as simple as that. It is undefinable and hard to catch; it weaves its way around thoughts. It can cajole, demand, shock, soothe, inform, betray and cause – or elicit – countless other actions and emotions. For me, writing is good when it draws me in and keeps me hungering to read the next word, the next phrase, the next sentence, etc. I cannot define what is good, but I know instantly when I read it whether something “works.”
I find that I use the method of editing by reading aloud when my own writing feels too complex or bogged down. When I am struggling with a cumbersome sentence or paragraph, I find that speaking it aloud helps me to determine what needs to be done to make the sentence flow – both as a single thought and as a larger piece of the paragraph, and ultimately, the entire article or essay itself.
I also have a propensity for long sentences built of clauses separated by a million commas which are technically “correct,” but in which a reader can easily become lost. After breaking these up, I sometimes feel as though the result is now too choppy and instead of a melodic weaving of words, I have a staccato drum being hit on the wrong beats. Reading my work aloud helps to prevent this overcorrection.
When editing, I use the same principles. When I get stuck inside of a wordy sentence and cannot seem to make any sense of it, I read it aloud. It may take several times, but eventually the intention of the sentence reveals itself to me and I am able to rework the sentence so that it is accessible.
Reading articles aloud is also a great help to those of us who are very fast readers. I have a tendency to read so quickly that the words become a blur of intent, which impedes the editing process, in which I have to be mindful of various style guidelines and punctuation. Reading the articles aloud forces me to slow down and to hear the article the way the reader will “hear” it.
Editing by reading out loud is a useful tool for writers and editors alike. It does away with grinding and inhibitive rule-based writing and allows the language to speak for itself and convey its intention. It also allows editors to let go a bit of the “standards” they were taught so that the voice of a writer is allowed to shine through. The technique gives a greater chance of success to those who never had access to the “proper” way of writing, which is directly in line with the “boldly inclusive” aim of Guardian Liberty Voice.
Opinion by Jennifer Pfalz
Elbow, Peter, “11. Revising by Reading Aloud. What the Mouth and Ear Know” (2010). Emeritus Faculty Author Gallery. Paper 29. [email protected]
Image Courtesy of mika’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License