BY MATTHEW PARSONS
Reading is so much weirder than talking.
Think about it: when somebody talks to you, you know instinctively that there’s a person responsible for forming those words: namely, the person whose larynx produced the vibrations that eventually reached your ears. The written word is more mysterious. A reader can’t know for sure that the words in front of them are the product of one specific human’s desire to communicate something.
For instance: right now, at the top edge of my computer screen, I see the words “file,” “edit,” “view,” “insert,” and so forth. These words are meant to communicate with me, to give me information. But, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t a person that’s doing the communicating.
I think that’s why writing is so much harder for people than talking. We’re used to the written word being used in a fundamentally different way to the spoken word. That’s inevitable, of course. But the difference in the way we understand spoken and written language has one particularly nasty side effect: the phenomenon of inhuman prose.
You know the stuff I’m talking about: the kind of writing that seems like it was compiled by a disembodied consciousness, rather than written by a human. And sure, it has its place, in instruction manuals or encyclopedias, perhaps. But, if you’re trying to write something that people will choose to read, maybe you should try a different tack.
I only recently realized this. Appropriately, my epiphany happened while I was writing for the radio, a medium that depends on the constant presence of larynxes for its survival.
Good radio is a spectacular illusion, in that it consists largely of people reading scripts, but it sounds like they’re just talking. To some extent, the illusion is carried out by the people doing the reading. But mostly, it’s up to the people doing the writing.
Radio taught me to write prose that gives the illusion of speech. That’s the secret to avoiding inhuman prose. If you’re writing a blog post, or a news story, or a novel, and you manage to conjure up the aural image of a vibrating larynx, you’re on the right track.
A lot of the time, I still fail to achieve this. I’m failing at it right now. But, I’m going to try harder, because I don’t want to lapse back into the way I used to write.
Here’s an example of how I used to write: “Kresky’s skepticism about the existence of Joyce’s fugue is understandable, considering that he has been exposed to some critical examinations of the music of ‘sirens’ that would read as being somewhat ridiculous to a music theorist.”
That’s from an essay that I wrote in a 300-level English class on Ulysses. (Have I mentioned before that I’ve read Ulysses? Anyway, I’ve read Ulysses.) For now, let’s ignore the content of this sentence, because if I tried to explain what my essay was about, you’d be in a boredom coma before I got halfway through. Let’s just look at its construction.
There’s a big problem with the construction of this sentence. There are far too many words in it. There’s also far too much information, most of which isn’t important. I used to have a compulsion to pack every sentence I wrote as full of stuff as I possibly could. Trouble is, most humans don’t speak like that, so they don’t want to read prose like that. I, personally, speak more like that than most humans, and even I don’t want to read prose like that.
So, if I were to rewrite this sentence today, it might look something more like: “You can understand Kresky’s skepticism about Joyce’s fugue, considering how ridiculous other critics’ interpretations must seem to him.” Eighteen words, compared to thirty-two in the original sentence.
And yeah, I know, the generic pronoun “you” isn’t advisable in academic papers—but why the hell not? (I should digress here to say that any advice I ever give about writing owes something to George Orwell’s six rules, which you’ve got to check out, if you haven’t.)
Before I wrote for radio, I used to think I could ignore Orwell’s rules if I did so on “stylistic” grounds (I was reading too much Joyce, obviously). In practice, this meant that anybody who read my prose would find me inept and obnoxious at best, and completely incomprehensible at worst.
But when you’re writing for the radio, you have to follow Orwell’s rules, because if you don’t, the host ends up sounding like a computer, an alien, or—worst of all—an academic journal.
Radio has taught me to be kinder to the audience. It has forced me to notice the self-evident truth that all writing and all speech is an attempt to connect with people who are not yourself. The best way to do that, in my experience, is to be human.
But, there’s a broader moral here. My experiences writing for radio demonstrate how learning to write for an unfamiliar medium can improve your writing skills across the board. It doesn’t just add tools to your toolkit, it can prompt minor epiphanies.
So, go shoot a video project. Make a radio doc. Write a text adventure. Then, next time you sit down to write a blog post, for God’s sake, try to demonstrate what you’ve learned. ♦
CBC Image Library