Write for the ear

Mar 11, 2014 | Better Writing

Anthropology professor Tanya Marie Luhrmann shares a brief history of spoken and written language in her New York Times opinion piece, “Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling.”

“for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung. We think that the Homeric singers of those tales mastered the prodigious mnemonic task presented by those thousands upon thousands of lines of text through an intricate combination of common phrases — rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea — and nested plots that could be expanded or shortened as the occasion demanded.

Even after narratives were written down, they were more often heard than read. The Roman elites could read, but gatherings at which people recited their poetry were common. And before the modern era, when printing made books widely available and literacy became widespread, reading was an oral act.”

The spoken word still rules

Today we seem to give preference to the written word, but for most of history, the spoken word ruled. If you want to write a great book or blog post, it should still rule for you.

Written language is great for historical records. It’s great to make sure that every version of a piece is the same. But written language tempts us to be more complex than we would be talking when to a friend.

Here’s a rule to remember. If it makes sense when you say it, it will make sense when you write it. But the process doesn’t work the other way.

Writing for the ear

If you want to write things that are easy to understand, write for the ear. Here are two rules and one suggestion to help you.

Make it conversational. Write the way you would talk to a good friend in a casual conversation.

Read your writing aloud. Your tongue will spot problems that your eyes will miss. The very things that tie your tongue in knots make it hard for readers to understand.

Read your writing aloud to someone else. This is only a suggestion because not everyone can make this happen. But if you can do it, you pick up another level of protection against writing that’s hard to read.