Thursday, 9 August 2018

The written word and the reading voice

This is mostly a post for writers, though I think it is equally interesting for pure readers too. So here’s a thing. I write as me, no surprises there. What I mean by that is that what I write is actually what I speak. And what I mean by that is that I type words onto the page I am speaking them in my head as me. So what I see on the page when I am finished, to me at least, seems a perfect representation of what I wanted to say verbally. Kind of. Some things you cannot write adequately. Nevertheless, for the most part I can imagine myself saying it, as essentially I have done just that a few moments ago. I hear it in my own particular style and timbre. I know where I place emphasis, or where my voice would naturally inflect, such as the falling pitch at the end of a sentence. I know where I would pause, I know where I would continue without taking a breath. But whilst I can try my best to represent that with commas, with italics, with dots (…), dashes (-), brackets, underlining and other various other punctuation marks or constructs, really only I understand how I would have said something, and therefore when what I write is being read by others (which is after all the whole point), I do worry from time to time that it simply may not work, and that the reader won’t grasp what I am trying to say, or at least not in quite the desired way. I tend to worry less about sentence length. Anyway, I thought I would just mention that to me my words sound exactly as I expect them to, but for anyone else, well let’s just say their mileage may vary.

Well actually that is not quite true. A few hardy souls who continue to read this blog have actually had the great pleasure/misfortune (delete as appropriate) of meeting me in person. Some, for instance local birders or family friends, may in fact know me quite well, indeed some may have known me for many years. For those lucky people I imagine that they can read it as I would speak it. Or at least I expect them to, I may be wrong. Certainly when I read something written by people I know I will tend to read it in their ‘voice’. When reading letters or emails from my parents say, or messages from Mrs L, my sister or my children, I ‘hear’ them speaking. In the same vein there is a radio variety show I am very fond of called “A Prairie Home Companion” which was for many years hosted by a man called Garrison Keillor. He also writes books that involve a particular sketch from the show, a monologue called “The News from Lake Wobegon”, and when I’ve read those books I’ve read them as Garrison – frankly it was impossible not to. It’s an interesting concept isn’t it? As I say, my assumption is that other people do this too but I would love to know for certain.

But coming back to the original point, I suspect that many people who read what I write, and read it regularly, will have ‘translated’ my punctuation (in so far as that is even possible - I tend to take many liberties, this bracketed interlude is a prime example) into what they think I sound like, and so every time they open up a post they may subconsciously revert into reading it in a style that they believe is me. Personally I think that is entirely natural, and it’s certainly something I do to words written by bloggers who I have never met. Equally if I read a long novel written in the first person, after a time I may develop an interpretation of what the protagonist sounds like and then carry that forward for the rest of the book. Entirely in my head. Having read certain bloggers’ posts, or certain author’s books over many years I have conceived an idea of what they sound like, and as I read I slip into their ‘voice’. Now of course this may be – and probably is – a million miles away from what they sound like in person. I was tempted to say ‘in real life’ but as we all know blogging is real life hem hem. But if I were ever to meet one of these people face to face might I be rather surprised, perhaps even disappointed (!), that I have been reading them ‘wrong’ for all this time? Perhaps the best example I have is of listening to a short audio clip from a blogger who I had read for years and for whom I had developed a ‘voice’, only to discover that they spoke completely different from how I had imagined them. In some ways it was actually shocking. I felt I knew somebody but in fact I didn’t – and this was somebody who writes very, very well - how could they have got themselves so wrong?! I had the same experience once of hearing an audiobook after having read a few physical books, I think it was Bill Bryson reading one of his own books - it just wasn’t right even though it was him! Can a voice be said to define a person? Surely not, but more interesting is that having heard that blogger speak I found it very difficult – in fact, impossible -  to change my preconceived idea of what they sounded like when I next read one of their posts. Very strange how the written and spoken words both interact and diverge. Knowing somebody well eliminates that issue, but I do wonder if I were one day to meet a person whose output I consume whether I would find that encounter odd or somehow affirming? 

And trying to answer my own question, if a regular reader were to bump into me one day out birding, would they be surprised to find me different from how they imagined I sounded, or surprised that in fact I sounded exactly as they had interpreted the way I wrote? Who knows? I think it is safe to say however that they would nonetheless be disappointed….

8 comments:

  1. Not so, for me. I read your Blog with interest because you make it interesting. It's all about the use of written descriptive language. To me I don't hear you because I don't know you. What I do get is your deep feeling for your subject[s] and I am able to compare this with my own views and feelings. You have a way with words. Whether I agree or not is immaterial! Keep it up!

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    1. Cheers Graham, so keep visiting and commenting!

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  2. Yes, I do have a Jono voice in my head as I read your blog - never thought about that before though. In my head you sound like a nice, middle-class man. Maybe a bit like the actor/comedian Simon Pegg. And as for Bill Bryson, I read his books in his actual voice, the one I fortunately heard on the TV when he was interviewed at the time of his first book, so I am not going to be subjected to any sudden surprises there.

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    1. That's probably quite accurate z Steve, though I can be posh if needed.

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  3. What a brilliant post. For years (maybe forever) I've wondered if it was normal to read in voices. Apparently it is, so thank you! For what it's worth, I "hear/read" you speaking with a well-cultured yet ever so slightly effeminate voice troubled by a barely noticeable lisp and imagine you're prone to bouts of random mischievous giggles and such forth. No discernible accent, certainly not Cockney, just.."quite posh" :) I'd think I'd be shocked if you actually have a broad Scouse accent and booming bass voice. Maybe we need a short vid clip?

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    1. BTW I am highly cultured but untroubled by culture if that makes any sense at all. And no lithp!

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  4. Speaking as a non-lisping person, I find it quietly amusing that the word 'lisp' has an 's' in it, but (and far more importantly) I have a deep and utterly profound respect for the person that put the 'b' in subtle. Godlike genius, hats off mayet, as they apparently say in Linkesheer.

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