Sunday, 26 January 2014

On Writing: In audio, the pictures are better (discuss?)

Do you recognise good writing when you hear it?
The Verulam Writers' Circle Crystal Decanter and Gnome de Plume

We can probably agree that good writing is good writing, whatever the genre or subject of that writing, and we can probably also agree that we recognise good writing when we see it. But what about when we hear it? If we're listening to writing that's from a genre or is about a subject that has little attraction to us – best intentions notwithstanding – do we listen as carefully?

I am fortunate in belonging to an excellent writers' group, Verulam Writer's Circle (VWC), where we have regular manuscript evenings at which our members read their work aloud and receive critique. Over time it has become clear to me that some people are far better at retaining, analysing and critiquing orally delivered work than others. I for one am very poor at this, and – although I enjoy the readings – prefer to analyse work from the screen or printed page. Of course there must be many factors that influence this, including the confidence and projection skills of the reader and the acuity of the listener's hearing. The factor I'm interested in here, however, is the writer's ability gain interest – to hook the listener's attention – by creating 'pictures' in the mind.

At one recent VWC manuscript evening I was delighted to have my drifting attention lensed into sharp focus by passages in two different pieces, each by a different writer, both of which performed that magical trick of forming clear, colourful, images in my mind. From that point, but regrettably only from that point, both readers had my effortless attention: the operative word being 'effortless'. The message from this is, I guess, that if we writers can get those 'visual effect' moments in the right places in our work, we are in with a chance of winning-over listeners – and therefore, I would assume, readers/editors/publishers – who might not otherwise give our work their best attention.

Fair enough, but how to achieve such images? I really can't say. In my view those pictures in the mind are not achieved, as some people might think, by simply mentioning colours, textures aromas etc., by their bald names, or even by complex similes or metaphors, because among the few 'rules' I do believe in are: Less is more and Show, don't tell. All I can say for certain is that when those visuals work the effect is truly magical. 

What I would like to know most of all is: Given that [truism alert] it is impossible to read your own work for the first time – any more than you can tickle yourself – is it possible to know you've successfully achieved 'the visual effect' as you write and, if so, how?

If you know an answer to that final question, I'd be extremely grateful to hear from you because it's not a secret I've learned.

Thank you for kindly visiting my blog. Do help yourselves to virtual tea and biccys, but please shut the fridge door and turn out the lights out when you leave. Call again when you've time.

Good writing!



  1. Boy, Oscar, that is a good question. In grad school, we talked about reading our drafts aloud to ourselves because we "hear" our own writing in a different way than we "see" it. I have to say that's true for me; I miss things when I re-read my own work, but when I read it aloud, I catch different mistakes and awkward phrases, etc. But my biggest thing is trusting my gut as to whether something works. Once I've worked on a piece for a while, I hit a point where I just know that it's done. This may not quite get to the question of how to know when a writer has written something that grabs the audience with its imagery, but I think this is really all about our own process and practice and the eventual feeling that we've achieved a good piece of work. There is no magic formula. There is, instead, experience and skill development and using feedback to make our work better.

  2. Thank you, Kathleen, for taking the time to read my post and to respond so comprehensively. Yes, I think your approach to exploring/editing your own work follows much the same pattern as mine. Reading aloud to oneself (or, indeed, to others) does pick up more errors/required edits than silent reading alone. I believe this is because listening – even to oneself – brings into play different brain mechanisms. But, as you recognise, such listening doesn't, and never can, account for the 'picture' effect (or lack of) experienced by a listener on that very first hearing, which the writer – having written the piece – can never experience (unless, of course they're unfortunate enough to suffer amnesia or, worse, dementia like poor Iris Murdoch. But let's not go there). Thanks again for your thought provoking comment.