Read aloud : an author’s critical editing tool?

Read aloud: as writing tutors advise

Almost every writing tutor — including Sophie and Joanna of this parish — will tell aspiring writers that it’s a really good idea to read aloud during the editing process, in order to judge whether the manuscript needs more work. Basically, if you fall over your prose while trying to read it aloud, you haven’t got it right. Yet.

Apparently, we and all the other tutors are guilty of logocentrism. (Is that another of those incomprehensible words that Dame Isadora was ranting about, a few weeks ago? Maybe, but I haven’t been able to ask her, because she’s off in one of the wilder parts of the world, advising some government panjandrums about communication skills. I imagine her audience is still reeling…)

Logocentrism — wot?

Logocentrism is “the belief that speech is more authentic than writing,” according to Steven Poole, a journalist who writes about the abuse of language. Since Logocentrism is an abstruse 20th century philosophical term that I’m not qualified to define, I propose to go with Poole’s interpretation for the moment.

Poole offers it in a recent review of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, a 2019 bestseller in the US, now also published in the UK. (Is Dreyer’s title an American’s idea of irony? Or something less flattering? You decide.)

The guide’s author, Benjamin Dreyer — executive managing editor and copy chief at Random House — obviously has pedigree in the style business. His advice can be pretty raw, though. Did you know that you’re a “godless savage” if you don’t use the Oxford or serial comma? That’s British English put in its place.

However, Dreyer does say something that many writing tutors would endorse:

“One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well constructed is to read it aloud.”

exclamation mark in firePoole disagrees. Vehemently. He maintains that:

Prose that can easily be read aloud on the first try is the kind of frictionless, conversational writing that makes no demands on the reader, which is fine for certain applications and depressingly unambitious for others.

Dreyer’s read-aloud approach, Poole says loftily, characterises:

the kind of writing that Dreyer is offering to help the reader produce…


Read aloud:
if that works, first time, your work is depressingly unambitious?

Frictionless? No demands on the reader? Depressingly unambitious?
I find myself spluttering in response, rather like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. ?

A pause here while I seek alcoholic refreshment and try to control my soaring blood pressure.

Image by Dirk Wohlrabe from Pixabay

Now that I’ve calmed down somewhat, I find myself turning Poole’s words on their head.

copy editor rocks

Is he implying that prose which is NOT easily read aloud is good writing? Ambitious, even? Does he favour the kind of chewy prose that requires so much applied brain power to unpack its dense and worthy inner secrets that a wet towel is mandatory?
Not accessible to normal readers, of course.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Yes, quite.

So how many times do we normal readers have to reach a dead end with complex writing — read aloud or even silently — before it stops being full of friction and starts being simply pretentious? The kind of stuff that Orwell might have termed “outright barbarous.”

Rather than continue in this vein and spike my blood pressure again, I offer you Alistair Campbell’s verdict on Unspeak, one of Steven Poole’s books: “I am not quite sure what Poole is trying to say.”

😉 End of rant. I really shouldn’t trespass on Dame Isadora’s territory like this.

For the record, I shall continue to advise Libertà workshop participants to read their work aloud. And most of the time, I avoid the Oxford comma, too. Cleary I’m a godless savage…

Joanna Maitland, authorJoanna

12 thoughts on “Read aloud : an author’s critical editing tool?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Extremely rude, that Poole character! My mantra when advising writers is to give the reader a rough ride, smoothly delivered. If he has to stop and think, it’s a writer flunk. So up your whatsit, Mr Pretentious P.

  2. Katie Fforde

    If my readers want to work hard I expect them to go to the gym. My books are for relaxing with. (and no, I can’t find a way of writing that without ending the sentence with preposition!)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Well put, Katie. And there’s nothing wrong with your “with”. Churchill got the Nobel Prize for Literature and he did it, too, didn’t he?

  3. Liz

    I confess to a slight addiction to the Oxford comma but my copy editor removes them all so no one need get their knickers in a twist over that. As regards Mr Poole, it’s my characters I choose to give a hard time, not my readers. Pompous ass.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Joining the company of “godless savages” then, Liz? Personally — don’t tell Dame Isadora 😉 — I think both the blanket comma rules (Oxford comma, never Oxford comma) are daft. The purpose of punctuation, surely, is to enable reader understanding. I’ve so often seen lists in British publications where some of the constituents include “and” eg … Smith and Son, Piddling, Marks and Spencer, Gieves and Hawkes and Bellman. Now, which is the pair at the end there? If the reader doesn’t recognise the constituents, it can be difficult to untangle the list without the Oxford comma which I would put after Hawkes.

  4. Louise Allen

    I like Grammerly’s example of using an Oxford comma – “I love my parents, Humpty Dumpty and Lady Gaga” which is crying out for the Oxford comma – “I love my parents, Humpty Dumpty, and Lady Gaga.” On the other hand, having spent years avoiding the OC, I’d go with reversing the positions of Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty in the sentence to achieve clarity.
    And yes, Mr P is a pompous ass.And while I quite agree that ready aloud is a Good Thing, I get the giggles, which somewhat defeats the purpose

  5. lesley2cats

    In my ‘umble opinion (and I’m very ‘humble) Mr P’s views are the very antithesis of good writing. Mind you, I’m not that sure about Mr Dreyer, either. I still develop a nervous twitch about ending a sentence with a preposition – a hangover from school days – and the Oxford comma, which wasn’t dignified with “Oxford” in those days, but language and grammar changes. Now I use whatever seems appropriate and makes sense. Where do these people get off laying down all these rules? And yes – I know I frequently burn holes in the ceiling when confronted with certain words, (“hubby” springs to mind) but I’m only human.

    1. Joanna Post author

      People laying down rules? Makes them feel powerful, maybe? Why — whisper it quietly — even the Pedant Dame doesn’t do that nowadays. Most of her rants include sensible tips for dealing with silly rules. Seems to me that the rule-layers keep forgetting what grammar and punctuation are about, ie making reading easier. It’s about readers, not about rules for their own sake. So I’ll remain a “godless savage”, most of the time. But, crucially, not always. If a list needs an Oxford comma, I’ll use one.

  6. Sue McCpr,oc

    I am absolutely with you about the reading aloud; it isn’t sentence structure that should cause the reader to stop and think; it is the ideas the sentence conveys that should do this.

    On the other hand, I am highly in favor of the use of the Oxford comma; I find it brings clarity. On the other hand, I am not a purist. I would only notice its non-use if the sentence required that additional clarity.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m not a purist either, Sue. On this side of the pond, we’re taught in school that there must be NO comma before the final “and” in a list. And lots of publishers automatically remove it, even when it’s needed for clarity. Daft. But because it’s drummed into us at school (or was, in my case), I still have to persuade myself to use the Oxford comma because it looks wrong.

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