Every manuscript reaches a point where it must be printed and read aloud. Every time I get to that point in a book, I try to cheat because printing over 300 pages, even economy setting, double-sided, and laboring over each sentence, looms as a horrendous task.
Alas, cheating never works. Eventually, exasperated, I print out the whole thing and devote about a month to reading the entire book, one sentence at a time.
Here’s what I gain from the experience.
I find niggling errors, such as leaving out tiny words:
He really, really had intended to meet his family. No, he already knows his family. He really, really had intended for her to meet his family. That makes more sense.
Or substituting a correctly-spelled incorrect word:
It took her fifteen minutes to locate the car in the back of a kitchen cupboard. Unless she’s looking for a tiny toy car, this sentence should say, It took her fifteen minutes to locate the cat in the back of a kitchen cupboard.
Ever wonder why we miss those errors even after multiple computer readings? I thought it was my inattention to detail, or perhaps leprechauns came in the night to delete and rearrange letters. In fact, it has to do with the differences in how the human eye sees words on a computer screen versus on a page.
This is why engraved invitations are considered elegant. Engraving enhances the letters the on-the-page effect and makes the text look richer. So reading from a printed page brings out subtle differences in word shape, emphasizing that car is a different shape from cat. If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “As soon as I looked at the printed copy, the mistakes jumped out at me,” they’re not making that up. That’s what happens.
Printing picks up only part of the errors; finding the rest requires reading aloud. No, having the computer read it to you isn’t good enough. Computer-generated vocalization was developed to make technology more accessible to the visually-challenged, not to turn written into oral prose. The Voice—known fondly around our house as Majel Barrett—doesn’t reflect the innate rhythm of well-spoken English.
Every language has its own rhythm. A long time ago—likely fifteen minutes before I walked into the last English test I ever took—I could name the parts of that innate rhythm and tell you how many accented and unaccented beats came on either side of the internal pause. All I remember today is that there are some accented and unaccented beats before and after a central pause. The pause was so the speaker could take a breath.
In Old English it looked like this:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Which is the beginning of the prolog in Beowulf. (The poem, not the movie.)
A good modern translation preserves the rhythm, and the breath points:
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Both quotes from a web site provided by the Faculty of Humanities; McMasters’ University; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Good prose like good epic sagas, needs rhythm, and breath points in the right places. The only way to check both is to reading out loud. A good reader—think of your favorite actress or actor—can use flow and emphasis to make even lousy dialog sound somewhere between adequate and terrific.
A good author knows her characters and situations so well that she automatically does the same thing. When I do a reading, I add lots of emphasis in all the right places so that the printed word sparkles.
The problem is that the story is going out into the world on paper, not (at least initially) as an audio book. If the written word makes more sense, or is more vibrant when read aloud than it does or is when it’s read silently, it’s time for revisions. The real trick is to come to that point of perfect synthesis of well-written and well-spoken language. This is one place that the computer can't do it for you.
Quote for the week:
To pay attention to craft is to learn from materials and process, to find joy in the utilitarian and the commonplace, and to realize that powerful ideas are made manifest through the works of the hands.
~Jean W. McLaunglin, Director of Penland School of Crafts; Penland, North Carolina