Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Revise by Reading Your Stories and Poems Aloud

We've all heard them - writers who get up on stage and trip over their own sentences, these long and precious lines which they've lovingly composed.  And it isn't a lack of preparation or a lack of love - it's because the sentences were written for writing rather than speaking.

In creative writing, this is a problem.  Creative writing depends upon the good graces of our readers - they have to enjoy what they're reading, or they'll move on to something else.  Stories, poems, memoirs, even many works of nonfiction - these works must speak to the reader directly.  Unlike an encyclopedia, which can get away which pithy recitations of fact, your creative works must read in a very smooth manner.  It has to lull the reader into a sense of complacency.  The reader must feel as if this story is being revealed by a friend who's sitting right there, telling this tale like it is.

To pull this off, we have to avoid awkward lines.  And nothing reveals an awkward sentence quicker than reading it aloud.  To a large degree, this is because we learn to talk long before we learn to write.  For many of us, talking is so much more natural than writing that the two almost come out as separate languages.  And this is normal - usually, our writing requires a much different register than the words we use when we're "chillin' with buds" or "just baking a pie with Mom."

Unfortunately, creative writing often requires this more relaxed register.  We spend thirteen years (K-12) learning to "write the thesis statement" and "use five paragraphs," and the end result is that we never learn to write the way we speak.  Now, this isn't true for everyone, of course, but I see it every day among graduate and undergraduate students.  Instead of telling a story, we end up explaining a story.  Just to compare:
Joey hates the dark.  It makes his skin crawl.  There are no monsters out there - sure, he knows this - but there is a kind of evil that lurks in shadow.  And he has known this from the day he was born.
Now try a description which aims to be more accurate and factual and descriptive:
Joey has an excessive fear of the dark.  It creates this tingling sensation in his skin like goose bumps.  And he is aware of the fact that there are no monsters, but he is convinced that there is a kind of evil just waiting out there in the shadows.  And he has perceived this evil from a very young age.
Yes, the second example is more factually true.  No one perceives evil on the day they're born.  And Joey's fear is clearly excessive.  But does the second paragraph sound as good?  No.  It doesn't carry the tone we need.  It doesn't express Joey's emotions.  What it does instead is categorize his thoughts.  It attempts to give the reader a complete impression of Joey using thesis statements.

Many writers end up trying to capture the tone of the first example using the "literary prowess" of the second example.  The result ends up being a bit awkward:

Joey really hates the dark because of the way it makes his skin crawl.  Even though there are no monsters out there - and yes, he is aware this - there is a kind of evil that lurks in shadow which he has known about from the day he was born.
Grammatically correct?  Yes.  But awkward.  Not natural.  Very much the kind of bubbly cake-dough chunks you want to avoid in your writing.  And note that these sentences aren't that awkward - you can read these smoothly.  But they feel just a bit off.  And this is the cue we need to go in revise.

Reading aloud is the best way to discover which sentences feel awkward.  And you have to trust yourself on this.  If a sentence feels awkward when you read it - even by the tiniest bit - then it is an awkward sentence.  You should refine it.  And this might take time.  Some sentences just need to be written, but the point you wish to convey might be rather complex.  If that's the case, just circle the line and come back to it later.  Most importantly, though, you want your story to read naturally.  You want it to sound as if you're speaking to the reader directly rather than through the lens of "this is information I have written for the sake of your understanding my important point."

To see a live example of this, simply go to an open mic.  You will hear some writers stumble over their own sentences.  And then for other writers, it will sound so natural that you wonder if they're reading off the page or from memory.  And you'll want to be in this latter group.

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