“I suppose a woman of forty has no right to mind how she looks,” she smiled, as though he must know what vain thoughts occupied her.
I’m at a residency this week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and it provided the suggestion for today’s tip, which is to read your work aloud.
There are several reasons to do this, applicable at different stages of the writing process. It is important to read your work aloud during the writing process. Writers who take language seriously must think about how words sound. It isn’t enough to tell an exciting story. We must also be aware of the sounds of words, repetitions (intended and otherwise), and the rhythm of our sentences. Whether or not a reader will ultimately hear the words, these factors will affect the experience of reading them on the page, and we must take them into consideration. For me, that’s part of the enjoyment of writing.
Then, at the proofreading stage, it’s important to read work aloud because it helps to identify problems in punctuation, grammar, spelling, and other problems that might have been overlooked when the words on the page have become too familiar. I even advise composition students to do this–and these writers are little concerned with rhythm or euphony.
And then there is the stage when the work is being presented to the public, which happens frequently here at VCCA and also happens when writers are engaged in marketing the work. We often read the work aloud to an audience. And in that process, it’s important read the work aloud in advance. To practice, in other words. the picture above is taken from a blog post called Reading Aloud Will Improve Your Delivery. And that’s absolutely true. The readings here this week have mostly been very good. However, I’ve been to readings in the past that have been awful. (You might be interested in a short essay by Joe Mills on this subject: Dear Poet.) I once suggested to the director of a major writers’ conference that he organize a seminar on giving public readings, but the idea was dismissed because, he said, “The work must exist on the page.” Granted, of course. But then why do we give readings? And if we’re going to give readings, we’d best not put our listeners to sleep.
Read your work aloud. It will help.
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My tip today is closely related to the previous one. (See The Thesaurus Throwdown.)
“To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.”
Maybe, but there are so many other ways that one can render motion from one point to another that I have to believe there will always be a better choice: step, tread, pace, stride, stride out, move fast, strut, stalk, prance, mince, be proud, tread lightly, tiptoe, trip, skip, dance, curvet, leap, tread heavily, lumber, clump, stamp, tramp, goosestep, toddle, patter, pad, totter, stagger, lurch, reel, stumble, oscillate, limp, hobble, waddle, shuffle, shamble, dawdle, move slowly, paddle, wade, go on foot, ride shanks’ mare, foot it, hoof it, hike, footslog, wear out shoe leather, plod, stump, trudge, jog, go, go for a walk, ambulate, perambulate, circumambulate, pace up and down, go for a run or a jog, take the air, take one’s constitutional, march, quick march, slow march, troop, file, file past, defile, march in procession, come after, walk behind, follow, walk in front, precede.
(All of these are from a thesaurus, and note that the word “hump” isn’t included, and yet that was exactly the right word for O’Brien.)
This post is the first in what I hope will be a regular Friday discussion on Tips for Writers. Not that I know any more than anyone else, but I’ll put some things out there for people to consider, dispute, elaborate upon. The first one deals with the writing process itself.
In the September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Mark Doty comes down hard on the thesaurus: “If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things.” When I read that, I nodded, knowing from my stint as a teacher of Freshman composition that a thesaurus can be dangerous, much like an English-French dictionary can be abused by beginning language learners. Just because a word is in the thesaurus or the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s the right choice in a given situation.
But today the new issue of TWC arrived. (It came Priority Mail, for some reason; maybe the AWP folks thought I was having a writing emergency of some kind.) A letter writer, Ralph Culver of Burlington VT, complains about Doty’s comments, and says that it’s “one of the oddest statements I’ve ever read in your pages–and poets say some pretty strange things. . .” He goes on in that vein, defending the poor thesaurus, and the magazine allows Doty a response.
I confess that while I agree with Doty about the dangers of using a thesaurus, I’ve got one handy at all times while writing, and I do resort to it. But, knowing the dangers, I use it with extreme caution. I don’t set out to discover words I didn’t know existed–words that I might not be able to use properly, and that will almost certainly sound stilted in the context of my normal vocabulary. Instead, I simply use it to remind me of words I already know. Maybe everyone else has a better memory than I do, but when I’m writing I will often feel a word swirling in my brain just out of reach. I know that I’m looking for just the right choice, the precise noun that indicates the color I’m thinking of, the verb that states exactly the action that I want to describe (without having to rely on one of those evil adverbs). I struggle, and it doesn’t come. So I reach for the thesaurus and begin the hunt for just the right word. Usually–not always, unfortunately–I find what I was looking for and couldn’t remember. It’s a small triumph, but such is the life of a writer.
So, I mostly agree with Doty on this point, and I think Culver misses the point. A thesaurus can be dangerous in the hands of an amateur. But I keep one close just the same.