Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing Out Loud

Writers have long known, Jerry Weissman writes, that speaking their words out loud can facilitate thought and improve composition.

Instead of composing on a keyboard or a sheet of paper, try composing your thoughts by dictating them to your assistant or to Dragon speech recognition software.

If you are lacking inspiration, it will be easier to find some if you are conversing with someone else or dictating your thoughts.

All writers edit themselves. The best writers are the best at self-editing. One tip that they will all tell you is, reading it out loud will help you to get the right critical distance from your writing.

You can learn about this by preparing to give a lecture. It’s one thing to write down your thoughts, even to organize them into paragraphs. It’s quite another, and quite a bracing experience, to read them out loud, the better to get a sense of how they are going to sound to your audience.

So, the key to good writing is writing out loud.

Henry James dictated his last novels to his secretary. Michel de Montaigne and Thomas Aquinas dictated their essays and treatises.

The two greatest epic poems in literature were dictated by the blind poet Homer. And, of course, Socrates never wrote a word. He developed his thoughts in conversational dialogue. His pupil Plato wrote them down for posterity.

I recall that the academic fad called deconstruction began in the late 1960s by raising the issue of the conflict between speech and writing.

At that time, philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that Western civilization was a massive conspiracy to favor the speech act and to demean and diminish the written word, and, in particular, the act of writing.

Derrida offered a grab bag of bad things that presumably derived from the suppression of writing. Among them were metaphysics, ontology, the Logos, phallocentrism, the patriarchy, and so on.

Derrida recommended that those who spent their time studying texts deconstruct, that is, dismantle the canon of Western philosophy. In that way they could solve all the problems that had bedeviled Western civilization.

Deconstruction allowed academics to fight the culture wars without getting up from their recliners.

You may know that the philosophy of deconstruction comes from the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger.

Derrida rendered Heidegger’s thought palatable to radical American students. For those who are not familiar with the arcane aspects of the theory, let’s just say that deconstruction is philosophy-speak for what is called, in another venue, a pogrom.

Derrida might not have known it, but Heidegger certainly did.

At the time academics at the time felt that deconstruction was the latest radical thing.  Nothing like a good conspiracy theory to heat up those mental juices.

For now, I would add that if Derrida’s pupils and acolytes took what he said seriously, they would have wanted to develop a writing style that owes as little as possible to the influence of the spoken word.

Perhaps that is why academic writing is often so pathetically bad.

At the dawn of American deconstruction I did have the opportunity to hear Derrida deliver a public lecture. Consistent with his theories, he simply read aloud a written text. Whatever the value of the ideas or their presentation, it did not work as a public lecture.

Be that as it may, why does writing out loud help you to compose your thoughts and to edit your texts?

Surely, when you recite what you have written you are feeling its rhythm and are also listening to it. Dare I say that it helps to have a good sense of rhythm?

More than that, when you listen to your writing you are listening as though you were someone else.

You cannot edit yourself if you cannot read or listen to what you write as though you were someone else.

For the same reason, it is much easier to edit a piece of writing if you have not looked at it for a while. Having put in on a shelf or in a drawer you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
One thing writers know: You should never attempt to edit your writing if the experience of writing it is still fresh in your mind.

And then there’s Mozart. His example provides us with a strange angle on the question of writing and dictation.

In the movie Amadeus Mozart’s rival, Antonio Salieri remarks in despair that Mozart seems to be writing music as though he were taking dictation from God. This raises some important questions.

Is good writing something you make happen or something that you let happen? Is a great writer a conduit or does he express something about himself through his writing?

We know that you can speak many more words per minute than you can write. The more quickly you speak the less you will be thinking about what you are doing. The less you think about what you are doing the more likely you are to allow your work to take on the form that it wants to take, without any interference from you.

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