The writer’s friend: the voice you hear while reading silently

Years ago, I was told that sounding the words out inside my head while reading silently was a very slow way to read. (No, I didn’t move my lips while reading.) Sometimes it’s my voice. Sometimes it’s my approximation of the author’s or the character’s voice. I’ve always found that helpful because it made the material more real. I didn’t tell other people this after hearing how stupid I was to read that way.

Research summarized in an article in “Psychosis,” however, indicates that “the vast majority (82.5 per cent) of contributors said that they did hear an inner voice when reading to themselves.”

Perhaps one’s view of the good or ill of hearing an inner voice while reading depends of your language focus. It is a spoken means of communication that’s sometimes translated onto the page or a written communication that it’s possible to read aloud?

If you write–or if you read a lot of fiction–storytelling might seem first and foremost an oral tradition whether you’re hearing the story told to you in person, on TV or in an audiobook, or whether you’re reading it from the printed page.

Since I have always heard an inner voice speaking the words I read or write, I am very conscious of what each sentence sounds like from one draft or a story to the next. The sound of that printed sentence in the manuscript is either awkward or it isn’t, has a rhythm to it that’s suitable to the story or the character, or it doesn’t.

In Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: a 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, she writes, “The sound of language is where it all begins. The test of the sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise the words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend of those sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.”

Some writers read their material aloud. Others ask a spouse or friend to read it to them. Not a bad idea, though I’ve never found that necessary. The first thing is being able to hear the voice, either your voice “talking the words” to yourself or a gifted narrator saying each line. Once you hear your work, it becomes so much easier to craft.


Author: Malcolm R. Campbell

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of "Sarabande," "The Sun Singer," "At Sea," "Conjure Woman's Cat," "Eulalie and Washerwoman," and "Lena."

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