Judging Your Ability to Write - The Ultimate Test
The Ultimate Test of Writing Ability
The most difficult task for any writer to undertake is to judge the quality of our own writing. We repeatedly rewrite and then, when reviewing a week later, restart the whole process over again. Even mastering the technicalities of grammatical construction and punctuation is not enough; especially as achieving this sometimes leaves the work too stilted and formal for its purpose.
The ultimate test of writing quality is therefore not of writing per se, but of the purpose for which writing was created. The written word was created to be read, not only to be read, but to be read out loud.
Evidence of this can be found in punctuation. In grammar, one of the listed uses of a comma is to indicate where the reader should pause to allow the listener a momentary thinking time, shorter than a full stop but a point of emphasis nonetheless.
On visiting St Ambros (338-397, Bishop of Milan) St Augustine of Hippo was amazed to see St Ambrose reading without annunciating the words.
To quote: When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud (Confessions Bk VI).
The fact that St Ambrose read without speaking the words allowed created quite a stir.
The purpose of writing is for it to be read, aloud. Therefore the test of the quality of our writing is to read it aloud. I will support this argument shortly, but in doing this you will quickly discover its value. Your tongue will trip over bad construction. You will run out of breath in an overlong sentence without punctuation. You will trip over a comma in the wrong place, and more.
Without getting too embroiled in phonetics, each letter symbolizes a sound and a combination of letters symbolizes a combination of sounds, but there are two main types of sound in reading. Air passing across the vocal chords drawn tight across the glottis creates a buzzing sound to create what are known as voiced sounds. Air passing across relaxed vocal chords cause no vibration and are known as un-voiced or breathe sounds. Vowels are usually voiced sounds as are consonants such as the z in buzz, the v in vice and the th in this. Examples of breath or un-voiced sounds are the consonants, s in sit, f in fat and the th in think.
The classification of a consonant depends on where it is made, how it is made and whether it is voiced or not. This last part connects to sentence construction because it depends on how the word is used. Consonants can be formed using the back of the tongue, the middle or the front and at this point we can delve into lip and teeth consonants, trills, nasal vowels, degrees of tongue height, diphthongs and more. Who would have thought so much goes into expressing a single word? Nor have I delved into accents and colloquialisms and the historical development of word usage.
The spoken word is a combination of sounds containing different inflections, stresses, sonorities and cadences that the writer, especially in dialogue, has to imitate with a small symbol and a dash of punctuation. You can add an exclamation mark, or you can explain: He said angrily, but many editors consider the need to explain how your character said something to be a sign of weak writing.
Indicating the correct emphasis requires correct construction and punctuation. Reading out loud, as it is written, will provide a valuable indicator in achieving correct construction. Read a passage out loud and you will experience how long wordy sentences slow the pace and how short sharp sentences speed it up, which is all very well if the story slows or speeds up where you want it to.
The purpose of writing is to imitate words as they are to be spoken. Therefore the ultimate test of the quality of your writing is to read it aloud. Better still, record it and then play it back because while you can read and rewrite, listening to what you have written will reveal errors you will never be able to see.