Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Write, Not Live, Out Loud

by CWK

Jane Austen spent many a night reading Shakespeare out loud with her family. She developed her writer's ear by these mini dramas. No wonder she had an instinct for concise, striking language. No wonder her prose, at times, borders on poetry.

This topic of the writer's ear is, as far as I can tell, much neglected. I've only come across it in old books. Yet, most of us have been trained to write only for the eyes. We write in a world of silence. However, writing that "sounds" good "reads" good. Not vice versa. So, if we want our writing to read good, we need to first of all make sure it sounds good. Again, not vice versa -- though, maybe, versa vice. We can start by listening to our own writing: reading it aloud to ourselves, or a learned enemy. We might also get more into the habit of reading out loud (ala Jane Austen) so we can saturate our ears with sounds. Here's what we'll learn. Some sentences just sound good. They just do. They sound right. They have the right ring, and rhythm. Some don't. They grate our ears. They are hard to follow, and hard to hear. Sometimes, just by changing the order of words, you'll find you can turn a lecture into a jazz concert -- but you gotta have rhythm: rhythm with words. The path to good writing starts with our ears, not our eyes; and so, the way to your reader's heart is through her ears. 

Consider the following:

"Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again (Letters of C.S. Lewis, 291-292)."

“... the most important point about the tutorial system in general... is that ‘what you say’ is either ‘well said’ or not. For the essay is always read aloud. In three years at Oxford, and undergraduate will write from fifty to seventy-five essays. The most important thing about having to read an esssay aloud regularly is that it forces the undergraduate to write for reading aloud. Because he himself has to do the reading aloud, he soon becomes aware that he must make punctuational allowances for breathing pauses, which is perhaps the best way (because it is the most rudimentary way) to come to an understanding of sentence structure. The undergraduate must write so that when he reads aloud his turor will understand without being obliged to request the repitition of a sentence or a phrase... If the essay was not clear in the first reading, then it was unclearly written. The rule holds good generally: if the reader is forced to reread a sentence to enable the listener to understand it, it is almost certainly a case of bad writing or, at least, dull writing. In writing for the ear rather than for the eye, immediate intelligibility is the first commandment... (C.S. Lewis, Speaker and Teacher, 108-109).”

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