Look and Feel

In the rare moments when I suggest that students think of their readers as examiners (rather than peers), I try to provide them with some quantities to help them reflect on the quality of their prose. A paragraph consists of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words and should take about one minute to read. It occupies roughly half a page and, if you know what you’re talking about, takes about half an hour to write well. When reading over their work, students should therefore ask themselves whether any given page looks and feels like the author devoted about an hour of their best attention to it. If not, there is a very easy fix: take a moment to rewrite each of the paragraphs on the page. The more deliberately you do this, trying your very best to get your ideas across to intelligent, knowledgeable reader, the better the reading experience will be.

I said that the page should “look and feel” like you’ve given it your best attention. That is, I’m thinking of the aesthetic impression your writing makes on your reader. A well-written page should look solid and confident to the eye and should then feel pleasant and generous when being read. Here it may be worth remembering that reading isn’t something you do only with your eyes and your brain. Even when we’re reading silently, we “sound out” the words in our vocal chords. Reading, friends, is something that happens also in the throat. That is why I tell writers to read every paragraph they write out loud as part of the writing moment. It is a way of practicing kindness to your reader, a form of empathy. You’ve have chosen these words explicitly to pass through the mind and body of another human being. Try them out on yours first.

The point I’m trying to make is that reading is not primarily an act of judgment. It is an experience. In school (and in scholarship more generally) we tend to think of our writing as mainly an occasion for criticism. We submit our work and we brace ourselves for the reader’s verdict (whether that is a grade or an editorial decision). But before any critical judgment can be made the text must be read. It must be experienced by another human being who willingly takes the role of a reader, and a reader, too, submits: to the text. The reader consents to dutifully pass each word through their consciousness and make the best possible sense of their order. It is you who decided to put them in that order, you who subjected your reader to your prose. When we talk about being “kind to the reader”, this is what we have in mind.

2 thoughts on “Look and Feel

  1. Flaubert must have read your post Thomas: to ensure the euphony, rhythm and power of his writing, he famously used to literally yell each line of his text in his writing room, his “gueuloir”.

    Would you recommend his method?

    1. I’m not sure about yelling but I do recommend you read your paragraph out loud “with feeling”. Rising intonation at the end of a question, for example, but also reading quotations in a different voice than the rest of the text, changing your tone for the parentheses, etc.

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