Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Two Simple Ways to Give Your Stories Sparkle

Horror! The last typewriter factory in Britain has just closed its doors. This month, without a clatter of protest, the west has succumbed to Microsoft Word.

Courtesy of MorgueFile

How can this fateful event help us to write better stories? Please allow me a moment to digress...

With the demise of IBM Selectrics and their manual predecessors, we must finally say goodbye to those days when our every ms was as finely worked as a medieval palimpsest. Do you remember that era? Our pages were weighted down by correction fluid, stained by coffee and smudged by erasers. (Grey ones for top sheets, pink ones for carbon copies.)

Fast forward to the present day. The typewriter is dead. So what? Its demise is not just a trivial footnote in history.

It marks a radical change in the way you and I think.

Up to the 20th century, writers had a tangible and direct relationship with their work. Everything came out of the tip of a pen. Writing was a sensual experience. Typesetters went blind trying to decipher the crabbed marginalia of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the like. Authors wrote for the voice and often read their work aloud, to an audience private or public.

Until recent times, voice was paramount. A novelist ‘spoke’ to his or her reader.

Courtesy of MorgueFile
 Then typewriters arrived, in the early 20th century, and set up a barrier between authors and their words. Stories became written with the eye. And for it. This lead to the textual extravaganzas of Finnegan’s Wake, Nova Express and On The Road - freak shows of the printed word. All were initially typewritten. They would have been difficult, if not impossible, to compose by pen and ink alone.

A century later, word processors further alienated authors from the Voice. All is now done by the eye. Cut and paste. Fonts, enhancements, layouts... The product is even more emphatically a visual one.

That’s why so many commercial novels today clank like the Woodman in The Wizard of Oz. They were written for the eye. And with it. The result is two-dimensional. To date, ebooks just perpetuate that visual experience.

What Kindle has gained, literature has lost.

Yet there’s a simple trick that authors can use to add grace to any story. (No doubt, many of us do this already but I’m sure a lot of first-timers don’t.)

Read your work aloud - to yourself.

Is it ugly in the wrong places? Does it stammer, halt or splutter? Smooth the cadence or drop in some transitional phrases.

Act out every role in your passages of dialogue. Use appropriate voices, hand and facial gestures. At once, you’ll hear snippets of speech that sound unnatural. And you’ll discover places that cry out for body language or reflective pauses.

How does it sound?

Make the sound too tick-tock smooth, of course, and the passage will be as soporific as Spenser’s Faerie Queene. But now you know how it sounds you can go back and vary the pace and texture.

How will you know it’s working? Watch your reader’s eyelids...

Clever Idea #1: dictate your draft into a voice recognition program. As you speak, give yourself permission to re-adjust the words so they sound right. The printed transcript will then include your revisions. Its cadence will be true to the spoken voice.

Clever Idea #2: Save the final text as a pdf and have Adobe Reader read it to you aloud. (Adobe Reader can do that, did you know?) If the robot voice stumbles over a word, perhaps the reader will too. It’s something to check.

Within a decade, doubtless we’ll have thought processors. We’ll just compose our story in our minds and think it to the reader (or the thinker). Technology will do the rest. And what a mess it will make of the job!

I predict a big growth market, circa 2020, in blood-red pencils.

 Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro


  1. Excellent advice. I know "Big Name" authors do this routinely, locking themselves in a room, closing the curtains, etc. I tried the robot voice on Adobe, but I lost patience far too soon.

    Terry's Place

  2. Terry, the robot voice can be very funny! If it meets a word it doesn't know it goes 'Hrrrmph' like a character in P G Wodehouse.

  3. Bravo, John! From typewriter opening to your concluding prediction, an invigorating take on age-old wisdom. And I love the word "soporific"—I use it all the time to explain why descriptive symmetry ("She set the broken glass on the cherry table with a shaky hand") is less desirable than asymmetry ("She set the shard on the table with a shaky hand"—which spotlights the emotional response without the soporific rhythm).

    I always read aloud. How else can we find the music?

  4. I didn't know about Adobe's robot lady so gave it a whirl today and think it's fab. Thanks for that, great tip.

  5. I had not thought of how technology has distanced us from that connection to story. Interesting point, John.

    I have always read my work aloud, especially the dialogue. In fact I often speak it even as I write the first draft. That does help make it sound natural. And I agree with Kathryn about the need to spotlight the emotion in a scene.

  6. Lots of great ideas. I haven't tried the voice on Adobe. Didn't even know about it!

  7. John, Excellent ideas for using technology—which, as you say, has contributed to stories being written with and for the eye—to re-embrace writing with and for the voice. And I add my voice to the chorus of those here who didn't know about that read-aloud robot function. Thanks! (I also never thought about using a voice recognition program in the manner you suggest. Very clever, indeed.)

  8. My author voice must be very 'soporific' as that is what I experience after, reading my WIP ... maybe I shouldn't read it right after lunch.

  9. Just a tip about using the Adobe Reader 'voice' utility. You have to hunt for it and its location varies according to which Adobe version you're using. View/Read Out Loud works on Adobe Reader XI but I recall it was buried under Accessibility in the older versions.

  10. The advice is good, but personally, I think the "detachment" is overblown. I've written by hand, by typewriter, and by computer. I admit that the writing tools I like using tend to separate composition and formatting, though.

  11. Something about writing a story by hand creates a direct connection to both plot and characters, but not so much with the computer. Perhaps this has to do with the physical distance between the keyboard and monitor, for it is more challenging to reach out and touch our characters from a wireless device. On the other hand, the convenience of corrections, rewrites, etc., with modern technology offers huge, time-saving benefits. As long as this benefit does not create a sterile story bereft of all but the most vital details and devoid of the full spectrum of emotions, the writers' evolution from cave walls to modern computers must surely qualify as positive progress.

  12. I tried reading aloud to the dog. She left the room.

    Terry's Place

  13. When I think it may be ready, I email my manuscript to me through Amazon, so I can read it on my Kindle. That's one modern way I can find lots of mistakes before the readers can!

    Morgan Mandel

  14. Will Kindle replace published books in print? I have not yet read a book though Kindle, I still prefer the trophy-stature of collecting books I have read in print. However, after this generation succumbs to the next I believe the market share of Kindle and such e-book venues will dominate the market.

    Thank you.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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