Today is World Read Aloud Day, and we hope you’re able to make time to share the power of the written word with somebody. We think it’s especially impactful to read the words that you’ve written. And If you’re not yet ready to share them, we’ve got an idea: reading them aloud to yourself as a revision technique. Writing scholar Peter Elbow shares the effect of this approach in an excerpt from his new book, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing.
If people read aloud carefully each sentence they’ve written and then keep revising or fiddling with the words till they feel right in the mouth and sound right in the ear, the resulting sentence will be clear and strong. This is a bold claim. For skeptics I formulate it more rigorously: the resulting sentence will be much clearer and much stronger than if the writer relied only on an understanding of what sentences are supposed to look like—that is, relied only on knowledge of rules or principles.
Of course “clear and strong” is not the same as “correct.” “Aint nobody don’t use double negatives.” This is a strong clear sentence—and true. And plenty of people hear no problem with “between her and I.” So there’s still a need for final copy editing for surface features like spelling and grammar and perhaps register—and this copy editing requires knowledge that the mouth and ear don’t have. But the goal of revising by mouth and ear is not “correct grammar” but clarity and strength. The process is about meaning, not propriety.
Mouth and ear. A major goal of my book is to harness the linguistic knowledge in the body or kinesthetic sense. Despite all the “incorrect grammar” that shows up in spontaneous unplanned speech, our mouths and ears have linguistic and rhetorical wisdom that good writing needs. It’s a mistake to insist that all writing decisions come from conscious deliberation. Our mouths follow complex rules of grammar that our minds cannot tell us about. (Steven Pinker remarks that a child of four is following more complex and intricate rules of grammar than linguists have yet fully figured out.)
But many people need help and practice to learn the discipline of relying on tongue and ear for late revising. Many have been warned to distrust their mouths and ears and have a hard time overriding their sense of rules and principles. And of course people often don’t understand the rules and principles they try to use—and in truth, the rules need to be taken with a grain of salt. But when I look into the process used by writers who seem to be naturally skilled, I usually discover that they have always instinctively tested everything they wrote against mouth and ear.
To give people practice, I start out with examples from published writing to how easy it is to improve the work of professionals. Here’s one sample:
The newness of bilingual education means that the aim of research is more likely to be an account of what occurs when bilingual education is introduced than a demonstration of outcomes.
I start by getting people to read it aloud in pairs—without changes—for practice in reading aloud and to try to get a physical feel for meaning. Most of them hear pretty quickly that the sentence kind of bogs down and the meaning gets a little fogged over. Of course a good performance can make a bad sentence better—and I like to reward good readings; we all need practice in putting our bodies into written language. But even when we hear a really good reading that tries to give life to the sentence, I find most students can still feel a kind of mashed potatoes quality after “the aim of research.” So then I ask them to continue in pairs and craft new versions—trying to use only the mouth and ear as tools. Here’s a nice revision that came from this process:
Bilingual education is new. As a result, research on it is more likely to show what happens when it’s introduced. Research on long term effects will be harder to get.
For another example, here is a “learning outcome” that a university adopted as a goal for all students:
Students enter, participate in, and exit a community in ways that do not reinforce systemic injustice.
I asked an undergraduate class to work on this with their tongues and mouths, and Dana Arvig came up with this lovely improvement:
Students participate in a community without reinforcing systemic injustice.
After I’ve done some training workshops with students, I can point to any tangled sentences and passages in the essay drafts they hand in and say “I’m having to struggle to read this. It feels clogged. Remember our workshops? Make it right for your mouth and ear. Make it speakable.”
Of course style is subjective and mouths and ears differ—especially across cultural groups. In fact it’s interesting to hear students argue about which versions of a sentence are better. When they argue on the basis of rules, guidelines, or grammar, the outcome is very unpredictable and sometimes scary: the sentence that most of them call right is often very sad. But when they argue on the basis of mouth and ear, I find the result encouraging—even when they vote against the version I prefer. It’s usually strong and clear even if it’s not the music I like—and most heartening of all—the conversation is very writerly. It helps them grow as stylists. Even the haughty brilliant H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage) insists that people can improve their ear with practice (see the entry on “rhythm”).
Reading aloud to revise is nothing new. It’s been advocated since the early Greek rhetoricians. In the 18th century, Samuel Butler wrote that
I feel weak places at once when I read aloud where I thought, as long as I read to myself only, that the passage was all right.
But I haven’t found satisfying analysis of why this simple traditional practice is so useful. Butler’s words point to the most obvious benefit. Reading aloud intensifies our own experience of our own words through multiple channels of perception. We don’t just see them with our eyes and understand them with our minds, we feel them with our mouths and hear them in our ears—and indeed experience them in our bodies. Flaubert made a soundproof room for testing his prose by reading it aloud and used a slang expression for putting his writing “a l’epreuve du gueuloir”—putting it to the test of his gullet or trap.
So when we read our words aloud, this helps us experience them as others will. Why do we so often glance in a mirror as we pass by? It’s not just vanity—indeed it’s seldom vanity at all. More often than not, we want a glimpse of how others see us. Reading aloud gives us that glimpse. When I speak aloud the words I’ve written, it’s almost as though I’ve magically brought another person into the room. We increase our sense of audience.
Something subtle and interesting happens after we give ourselves lots of practice reading aloud to revise. The process increases our chance of noticing mismatches or friction between the outer physical experience of hearing the sound of our words and the inner mental or cognitive experience of feeling the meaning. After enough practice, we gradually begin to learn to notice when the fit is not so good between words and meaning—a sense of sounds flapping around a bit and slightly muffling the meaning. For example, I think many people would be able to hear some mismatch or static when they read these words aloud:
My own research shows that in a model simultaneously accounting for both House and Presidential on-year voting…
Our kinesthetic experience tells us that this passage will make readers work harder than they should. As we try out different wordings on our tongues and ears, we are looking for a better marriage between physical sound and mental meaning—as in this modestly improved version:
In my research, I used a model that accounts for both House and Presidential on-year voting.
When there’s a better fit between sound and meaning, we come closer to the embodiment of meaning; we give readers a better chance of experiencing our meaning. (About the mysterious process of “feeling meaning,” see Gendlin and Perl on “felt sense,” and my “Felt Sense and the Wrong Word.”)
Paradoxically the experience of sound in reading aloud helps even with the visual surface of writing: spelling, grammar, carelessly omitted or repeated words, and conventions of grammar and usage. Even though some of these matters are purely visual, like spelling, yet the mouth and ear help us catch what our eyes miss.
Reprinted from Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, by Peter Elbow, with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2012 Peter Elbow