Listening to the Print

K.E. MacLeod

May 2015 

We spend so much time in our lives listening to spoken words. It is how infants learn to talk. It provides guidance, information, rebuke, praise, provokes thought, and entertains. And, very often, it is how we first understand that those inky squiggles on pale paper are a kind of magic we can have for ourselves.

Voices (spoken) and authorial voices (written) have some crucial commonalities. There are cadences in speech that structure it for enhanced communication of meaning. Rhythm makes a reader’s mental toes tap. And the tone of the voice matters.

Cadences: At its most basic, punctuation is putting markers where a speaker would insert a pause or break to enhance meaning. One way of looking at the push/pull of punctuation is that it helps the reader’s eye know when to take a “text breath”. A comma asks for a slight pause, a period makes a full stop, etc.

Rhythm: The swing of active words through paragraphs and pages, the length of a scene or chapter, the rise and fall of tension – all these assist in making storytelling engaging. Just as it does in music, rhythm brings the listener along and provides a platform for the melody.

Tone: Is it rough, thin, resonant, lulling, monotone, staccato, clipped? The annoying shrillness of a TV infomercial huckster is that way on purpose. Advertisers know that nothing cuts through a listener’s awareness like a louder, higher-pitched voice. It makes you pay attention and remember what is being said. It backfires for me: I remember those brands so that I never buy them. Decent vocal tone is really important to me, both as listener and reader.

As a beleaguered writer stares at the monitor/page trying to revise a story into a more polished form, how do they manage to hear the words? Really hear them? Consider the following suggestions:

Read aloud: Don’t just whisper to yourself, or imagine reading in your head. It takes at least two actual people for speaking/listening. For the many writers who are introverts, this is upsetting advice. For those of the extrovert persuasion, good news for you.

Read exactly what is on the page: Take one word at a time, pausing only for punctuation that is actually on the page. When you created the story, what was in your head didn’t always make it to the page. If you carefully read just what is printed, you’ll be able to hear what still needs to get from your fertile brain to the paper. Remember the T-shirt saying: “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma” – grammar saves lives.

Plod through the reading: Save the dramatic presentation for your book tour. Reading in a fairly flat tone will take oral interpretation out of the mix and leave a truer sense of what got captured. You meant for Orville’s confession of love to sound awkwardly sincere. But do the words and punctuation support that? If you stumble or stammer at a phrase or sentence, it is usually a good sign that something needs to be revised to smooth out the bump.

Read to someone else: Reading raw drafts to others can be intimidating. Is it so wrong to want to just stun and amaze listeners with your golden prose? How truly human that makes each of us. But this is an opportunity to clearly listen to what you’ve written at an early stage so that revision is much less painful. Don’t agree with all the feedback from a listener(s)? You don’t have to. Just remember that each listener represents a segment of your potential readership and thus brings a representational response.

I am grateful to a benevolent universe for gathering the good souls that comprise my critique group. They are trustworthy, smart, constructive, often hilarious. But to this day, I still get nervous about reading a new scene. Every single time, I have to fight the temptation to dramatically declaim the moving, amazing scene I intended to put on the page. Yet I also really, really want my author’s “aha” to make it all the way to a reader’s “aha”. So I keep reading: plainly, from rough drafts, only what is on the page, loudly enough to be heard, calmly enough (I hope) to hear clearly in return. And, without fail, the input I get – and use – makes the scenes better. Much better than they would have been if left unspoken.