Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Good Uses for Bad Habits

There is a running joke in my family, pertaining to two of my most irritating quirks: (1) I speak very loudly,  and (2) I constantly talk with my hands. If the first bad habit won't clear a five foot radius around me at any given time - for fear of your eardrums bleeding - then the second will, if only because you never know when I might inadvertently shove my elbow in your eye, or under your jaw, or something.

The humor in this situation, however, is the fact that when I went to university, I majored in Deaf Education. Suddenly my most annoying quirks were exceptionally useful. If I am to help my deaf students learn how to enunciate certain words correctly, or carry over instruction from their speech classes, then projecting my voice at a very specific pitch and volume is important. Furthermore, if speech wasn't appropriate for that student or classroom situation, then I needed to be well versed in American Sign Language.

And so my worst faults became my greatest assets. Talking loudly and talking with my hands became something I actually got paid to do on a regular basis. My family makes a joke of it; but the punchline is that I finally learned how to put all my bad habits to good use.

But this isn't a complete assessment of my quirks. I'm afraid I have one additional quirk that is equally annoying to most people but which, in turn, I have learned to work for my own benefit.

That quirk is simply this: I talk to myself. Not all the time - but I do.

And no - I'm not senile. I'm a Writer.

Is such a behavioral oddity helpful? Oh yes. In fact, I would call it my secret weapon - especially during the editing process, when I'm up to my eyeballs in bad writing and really need to clear a path through a rough scene or chapter.

I stumbled across this helpful anomaly a few years ago when I read through Lord of the Rings for the first time. Now don't get me wrong - I adore Tolkien. I really do. But I learned through the exercise that while I could enjoy his books while reading them, I delighted in the books when I heard them (unabridged!) on audio CD. For me, Tolkien came alive more when I heard his work read aloud, than when I read quietly to myself.

That's when I learned that the real test of a strong story is how it falls on your reader's ear. And if you're like me, and are going to mumble to yourself now and then anyway - put it to good use! Read your tale aloud to yourself. Following this little tip will do several things:

     * You'll catch ordinary typos that you won't see and the computer won't catch. You know the kind of thing I mean - embarassing typos. Misspellings that actually spell other real words. Homonyms. Using the wrong character's name at a critical time. Little nagging details that will slip by you otherwise.

     * You'll catch semantic typos. By "semantic" I mean word meanings and word choices. Put another way: is ______ the best word for that sentence? Sometimes I find myself reading aloud, and saying a word that is actually not on the paper. It stops me short, because inevitably I find that the word I said is a better fit to the one I printed. It flows better. It says more or directs the action in a more meaningful way.

     * You'll get a good read on the "flow" of your novel. Reading aloud your work is also a great way to catch any hiccups in the overall fluidity of your tale. It forces you to view individual sentences not as a simple grammar construct, but as a collected bouquet of meaning. Does each sentence flow effortlessly into the next? Is any given sentence too short, too clunky, too long? When you stop to read your work aloud,  you actually hear things that are "wrong" in the rhythm and slant of the words, like a song whose tempo is just a bit off. Reading your novel aloud in the editing stage allows you to reset your metronome so your novel can "sing" the way it was intended.

Often we make the mistake of inferring that reading aloud is somehow an unsavory "chore" of academics, like learning your times tables or how to draft an outline. It can actually be your best friend, especially to writers. All you have to do is be willing to talk to yourself a little. Your readers will thank you later.


  1. I talk to myself all the time. I never thought of making it work for me, exactly. I just thought I was crazy. LOL. You know how when someone says they talk to themselves, they make themselves feel better by adding that they don't talk back? Well I do. I have both sides of the conversation with myself, being both the devil's advcate and the initial advocate. Or whatever you want to call it. LOL. I think I am crazy, but that may be because I'm a writer. :) (I'm just kidding, BTW. I'm not crazy. But I'm not sane either. What writer is?)

  2. This blogpost is a must read (aloud if necessary) for all writers. I'm no scientist but I've read that our eyes trick us all the time. We take in so much visual stimuli that our brains learn to fill in the blanks, which is why I think I miss so much trying to edit my own stories...until I read them aloud. The sound of the words must work on a different part of the brain and so I seem to catch more problems when I hear them.

    And as for pacing, especially with dialogue, there's no better way than to "act" it out to get the rhythm of the conversation.

    Writers are nuts but a good kind of nuts.

    Great post!

  3. Does whispering quietly to oneself count as "reading aloud"?

    I do talk to myself as I write, though. Mostly comments of the "Schnikes, Amanda, I can't believe you wrote *that*!" variety. :-)

  4. Couldn't agree more, Angela. Any time I'm editing (which, sadly, is most of the time at the moment) and I'm worried about whether a passage sucks, I read it aloud, along with a paragraph or so to either side. I find it really helps me catch when I'm overusing particular words or phrases (my biggest bugbear with most of my favourite writers).

    Amanda: whispering should be OK. I find the important thing is how much better you concentrate on something when you have to pronounce it out loud.