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Be A Listener

Posted on Thursday, August 30, 2012 at 11:30 PM

Assure that your readers will spend sufficient time with what you wrote.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Back in December 1994, for my sixth column in this now long-running series (what you're reading right here and now is column number 209), I offered my "Ten Commandments for Writers." The last of those was: "Be a listener."

I went on to say:

"Listen to what you hear around you: the baby's gurgle, the bee's hum, the neighbor's chatter, the leader's call, the anthem's ring. Reflect the environment. Be open to the power of suggestion. To listen is to feel the currents in the atmosphere. Listen also to what is within you. What tones and rhythms and timbres do you discern from the words you've chosen to tell, to show, to explain what's you've set out to tell, to show, to explain?

"Listen to your words. How does each word sound? How do the words in pairs and groupings sound? How do they bunch? How do they merge? Have you captured a rhythm? Have you captured a melody? Have you captured a harmony, or even a planned versus unplanned dissonance?"

I further explained: "You cannot listen, of course, if you only look, if you depend on your eyes alone to reflect what's in your manuscript. The eyes will deceive you. They will cause you to miss fact or clarity or nuance or color. The eyes cannot hear -- the naturalness of chatting, the flow of conversationality, the feel of linkage from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea.

"You must listen. Test all you write against the ears: to be unburdened of convolutions and, instead, to be enveloped, if you work at it, by the radiance of flowing crafted language. Be a listener."

Write for the Ears

The lesson used to be drilled into me decades ago when my teachers at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism repeatedly commanded: "Write for the ears." Granted, I was being trained for radio and television journalism, my goal at the time and the part of the profession in which I first worked. But I found it an immediate help in the other writing courses that I took and, of course, while doing the freelance assignments for print publications that ultimately led me out of broadcasting.

I am constantly reminded of my commandment, "Be a listener," this when I read my own copy aloud for editing. This, too, when I thrust myself through the assignments of students, students who've been told repeatedly, "Read your copy aloud," students who insist they've done just that, students who I know are not telling me the truth because, as I read the copy they've turned in, I find it dotted or flooded with awkward phrases and gaps in thought, all proving the lie.

By not testing copy against the ears, the writer cheats first himself or herself, then, of course, the reader.

It's All Rhythm

If you wish not to take my advice, take that of others.

Poet Dylan Thomas, when he spoke so excitedly of "the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jigged, and galloped along."

Novelist and short story writer Joyce Carol Oates: "The key ... is a voice, a rhythm, a unique music, a precise way of seeing and hearing that will give the writer access to the world he is trying to create."

The late editorial columnist and grammarian James Kilpatrick: "Effective writing ... has to have cadence. By that, I do not mean metronomic regularity. I certainly don't mean that we should strive for a singsong effect; for if you get to be self-conscious, if you strive for rhythm only, you will wind up getting dizzy, you will sound like Hiawatha. And I pray, you, sir, avoid it. No. I suggest only that we cultivate the inner ear. Let us listen to our sentences as they break upon the mind."

Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Eudora Welty: "The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me.... When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice."

The late newspaper columnist and teacher George V. Higgins in his book, On Writing: "Reading your work aloud, even silently, is the most astonishingly easy and reliable method that there is for achieving economy in prose, efficiency of description, and narrative effect as well. Rely on it: if you can read it aloud to yourself without wincing, you have probably gotten it right."

Novelist Virginia Woolf addressed the subject this way: "It's a very simple matter. It is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words."

Here's part of a Woolf sentence, as released by one of her characters walking on London streets and pondering death. Does it capture a rhythm? Has it been tested against the ears? "Did it matter then, she asked herself, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived...?"

The above is structurally complicated and continues to be as Woolf works her way to the end of the sentence, still a bunch of words away. But to read that passage is to be captured by the natural way the words sound, the way they come together as storytelling.

Words That Read Well

Listen as you read aloud the opening of an essay run in Harper's by the expert science writer David Quammen. The article is titled, "Planet of Weeds: Tallying the Losses of Earth's Animals and Plants."

"Hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt. Their job is to take the long view, the cold and stony view, of triumphs and catastrophes in the history of life. They study the fossil record, that erratic selection of petrified shells, carapaces, bones, teeth, tree trunks, leaves, pollen, and other biological relics, and from it they attempt to discern the lost secrets of time, the big patterns of stasis and change, the trends of innovation and adaptation and refinement and decline that have blown like sea winds among ancient creatures in ancient ecosystems. Although life is their subject, death and burial supply all their data. They're the coroners of biology."

Quammen has taken complex material and manipulated it into something understandable and readable and go-on inviting. The words read well. That's because they sound good. Their author listened before sending them to us.

So, I repeat: "Be a listener."

Should you be interested in the other nine of those Ten Commandments, they are: Be sensitive. Be confident. Be specific. Be yourself. Be perceptive. Be clear. Be liked. Be courageous. Be passionate.

Be them all. The tenth, however, "Be a listener," assures that readers will spend sufficient time with what you wrote using those other nine. The tenth will make them comfortable.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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