What I learned from reading my book aloud

There is a difference between written and spoken language that is hard to define. I think there is less of a difference in English than in some languages, but it still exists. To make your writing clear, I think that the closer you can come to spoken English with your written English the better. Your writing will sound fresher, more engaging. It will be clearer, easier to follow. It will be more fun to read. You will use fewer extra words.

To understand this, it helps to read aloud regularly.

Paul making sure I don’t rustle or fidget audibly

Have you ever read aloud for an extended period? I have. As my father was fading and I was far away, isolated in the early days of Covid-19, I would read to him over Facetime or Zoom. I read him his own book, The Strassmanns: Science, Politics, and migration in turbulent times, 1798-1993. I read some adventure stories, first in English and later in his native German. I read the young adult book, Der Schatz auf Pagensand by Uwe Timm aloud. He seemed to enjoy it.

Last week I did a very different kind of reading aloud. I recorded my own forthcoming book for audio. It is called Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard. This should have been easy, but it was not. I had to get it just right. I had both a sound engineer and a producer in my headphones, telling me when I had rustled, or when I had misspoken and so needed to repeat a sentence. I was armed with a throat-soothing tepid tea, water, and a mouth spray. I stood before a music stand with the text on an iPad and a big microphone backed by a foamy black box. I remembered to keep my chin up to sound less raspy.

Why should reading my own book be so hard? I guess it was hard because it mattered that I get it right. I wanted to read with expression, but found I could not keep that up. Instead I just tried to read the sentences as they were written, with appropriate cadence. That cadence was hard, particularly with long sentences. Where is the emphasis of the sentence? How do I balance the content and rhythm of the meaning? I read quickly and generally get sentences easily. But I want my writing to be accessible to everyone, including non-native speakers of English who may struggle with complex sentences. I wished my sentences were shorter. This is just a bit ironic, because it is advice I give my own students frequently.

My English teacher in high school had an opinion on sentence length. Burton A. Melnick at the International School of Geneva, Switzerland, said that we should write short sentences whenever possible. Short sentences were the best for simple thoughts. But then he told us we would be writing long sentences because we would have complex things to say. However, long sentences themselves do not make a simple idea complex. This worried me. In my heart I know I am a short sentence kind of thinker. I like to shake out an idea so that it can be told in a series of short, understandable sentences. Such a piece would be easy to read aloud.

I haven’t thought of Mr. Melnick, as we knew him, for a long time. But it turns out he has a Google Scholar page if you look for Burton A. Melnick, https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=NisKj6QAAAAJ&hl=en. He also wrote a novel, available on Amazon. I bought it. He was an impressive teacher who did not talk down to high school seniors. It was whispered that he was ABD (all but dissertation) at Harvard. I see from a search he had a AB degree in 1962 from Harvard, so it might be true. I could tell you more of my time in English class in Geneva, but that is not so relevant here.

I was happy with my book I am relieved to report. But with the next one, I will think of how it will sound read aloud and make sure my sentences are not too long. I will think about how carefully I have laid out the arguments. I will treasure effective transitions. And I will hope to make it fun.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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