grammar


Great advice from Zadie Smith via Jonah Lehrer: “The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”

Smith is talking about writing novels and says that “the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.”

While those of us writing shorter pieces under some form of deadline can’t put pieces away for years – or days – we can still use a few tricks to create some distance from our own sentences so we can try to read them as if someone else wrote them. In brief, anything that keeps you from silently rereading the draft straight through from beginning to end will help overcome the tendency to think, “It made sense when I wrote it and it still makes sense.”

  • No matter how little time you have to write a draft, break the process down into steps: note taking, drafting, taking a break, editing. The longer the break, the better able you’ll be to come back to the draft with an editor’s eye.
  • Develop a personal editing checklist and edit for just one thing at a time. See this checklist on The Writing Wiki.
  • If you didn’t use an outline to write the draft, create an outline from what you wrote. This will help you see the structure instead of getting lost in the flow.
  • Read your draft aloud, have your computer read your it to you, or have someone else read it to you.
  • Read the paragraphs in random order to break up the flow. Examine each one for logic and sentencing.
  • Read the sentences in reverse order starting at the end of the draft.
  • If you write at a computer, print out a draft and read it on paper.
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It’s most obvious with non-native speakers of English. Despite knowing more about English grammar than most native speakers and having a broad recognition vocabulary, they often continue to struggle to construct a workable English sentence.

Why?

Here are some excerpts from a 1985 Donald Hall essay in Newsweek titled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.”

“When we stopped memorizing and reciting literature, our ability to read started its famous decline. It was the loss of recitation – not its replacements (radio, film, television) – that diminished our literacy.”

“If when we read silently we do not hear a text, we slide past words passively, without making decisions….”

“In the old Out-Loud Culture, print was always potential speech; even silent readers too shy to read aloud, inwardly heard the sound of words. Their culture identified print and voice. Everyone’s ability to read was enhanced by recitation. Then we read aggressively; then we demanded sense…”

“As children speak poems and stories aloud, by the pitch and muscle of their voices they will discover drama, humor, passion and intelligence in print.”

As children – and adults – speak poems, stories, essays, and even well-written news articles and business reports aloud, they also hear the natural syntax, phrasing, and rhythm of English. They learn it as music, and just as song lyrics float around in the mind ready to be called upon when needed, this memorized syntax and phrasing will sit upon the tongue when we write.

Most people think reading is the best training for writing, but we write with our ear, not our eye. We voice our sentences onto the page, and the more we train our ears, the better – clearer, more powerful, more dramatic, more musical – our sentencing will be. Reading silently can help us become better editors, help us spot what looks wrong on the page. But as Donald Hall suggests, most silent readers “slide past words passively.” They pick up some meaning from the words (rarely demanding sense) but hear none of the power or nuance or even basic correctness. They don’t hear what sounds bad and what sounds good.

That’s why so much business and government writing is so awful. It isn’t that the writers aren’t educated or don’t care enough to take the time to do a good job. They simply don’t have a trained ear. Wrote Russell Baker in How to Punctuate, “When you write, you make a sound in the reader’s head. It can be a dull mumble–that’s why so much government prose makes you sleepy—or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.” If you can’t hear it, you can’t write it.

Even native-speaking adults can improve their ear for the music of English. It’s never too late. To train your ear, pick the best examples of the type of writing you want to do and read them aloud. Hear the music—the richness and variety in the sentencing. Then start reading all sorts of things aloud, and hear the difference. Hear and see the tangled, twisted sentence. Hear and see the difference between dull and dramatic repetition. Then read your own writing aloud.

Beyond helping us write sentences that are more natural, musical, and correct, reading aloud helps us “read aggressively and demand sense.” Only then will we begin to write the same way, examining our sentences to ensure the words work together efficiently to make sense.

This clarity is all the more important today as busy writers communicate in short emails, brief blogs, and 140-character Twitter bursts, while busy readers attempt to consume far more than they can stomach in a day.

Whether you’re goal is correctness, clarity, or power, reading aloud will help.

Bonus tip: If you write in MS Word, you can have Windows XP or Vista read back your drafts using text-to-speech. This is a great way to proofread drafts and hear mistakes you might miss when reading. I’ve started creating instructions for this in The Writing Wiki, but could use some help.

Here’s a crude example of text-to-speech:

I’ve earned my livelihood primarily as a writer and writing instructor since 1979. Much has changed: styles, tools, vehicles, topics of interest, and who’s willing to pay for writing and how much. A lot hasn’t changed. “A lot” is still two words. We still fight over the serial comma. And the goal for most writing projects is still to deliver the most valuable information clearly in the fewest possible words.

The media continue to play the dominate role in the evolution of our language, enriching it by pulling street speech up into mainstream communication while training us to communicate carelessly and unclearly. Social media is having a significant impact both good and bad on our language and how we communicate, and it has also made the ability to communicate clearly and succinctly more important than ever.

These topics will keep me busy.