Writers should talk more. We write to make ourselves heard. We use writing to tell a story, contribute to conversations, add our voices to a chorus, raise the alarm against injustice, call for help. Readers, then, look for a strong voice from authors or get emotional over a text that speaks to them. In each of these cases, text evokes a sound. Indeed, the very word audience originates from the Latin word meaning “to hear”, same as the word “audio”. Writing allows us, in a fashion, to hear words and language. As we read, we recreate what the words might sound like in our voices, rather than exactly how they sounded to the writer. Reading transforms print into sound, even if it’s all internal.
This is a call for authors to make more noise with their writing. I mean that literally: Use vocal sounds to convey words, not just letters on a page. Let readers become listeners. Tell your story to their ears. Spoken word demands a synchrony of attention that written words cannot duplicate. When confronted with written text, we can skip, skim, scan, and speed-read. With audible speech, while we can skip to a different spot in a recording, we then lose all the content we skipped; there’s no way to get an overview of spoken text. While at first this may seem a limitation, I believe the opposite: Spoken text offers an opportunity for richer involvement with the content than the printed word ever provides. Jonathan Sircy discussed this idea in the context of teachers reviewing student papers in an article on Hybrid Pedagogy titled “Faithful Listening”. In it, he explains how listening to student work creates a more genuine appreciation of their texts.
Writing teachers, especially those in K-12 schools, often work to help their students develop a voice in their writing. (I would argue that academic writing is often specifically intended to eliminate that voice, but that’s an issue for another time.) Writers who express their voice use words distinctly and purposefully, crafting a unique style recognizable as their own. But why do we limit ourselves like this? Our perception of writing should expand to include the spoken word, not just the written. We deserve to hear one another’s meaning.
The sound of language helps readers. I’ve been an avid fan of audiobooks for decades; my blind grandfather got me hooked on them, often bragging that he could read a book while doing the dishes while those who used their eyes to read couldn’t pull off the same trick. Audiobooks take the written word back to the oral tradition of storytelling, allowing the narrator to infuse the text with expressiveness and emotion that, for all the wonder of written language, is nonetheless challenging to capture in print. Think how much texture and richness are added to poetry when it’s read aloud. The sound of words endows language with beauty and meaning. Those of us who read books with our ears hold a dual-layer appreciation for the text, and it baffles me when people claim — as I often hear — that listening to an audiobook isn’t “real” reading. On the contrary: Listening to a text is more real than merely reading it.
I’m also a huge fan of podcasts, listening to them in my car any time I don’t have an audiobook queued up. Unlike traditional radio programs, which require an audience to listen at the same time as the program is broadcast, podcasts allow the audience to listen to a program on their own schedule, with a caveat: The program still takes the same amount of time to listen to regardless of when it is played back. Timing is integral to audio programs; good programs captivate audiences with well-timed narrative and keep listeners involved in the audible world they present.
Speaking of timing, silence is underrated. When we tell stories to our friends, we pause at certain points and rush at others, to help deliver the story the way we intend. Audible storytellers need to keep in mind that their audiences might need a moment for something to sink in. Silence is also a foreign concept for people who work in text. While paragraph breaks or visual dividers do a little to affect the speed at which readers experience writing, there is no way with the written word to force readers to stop and ponder an idea. The reverse is also true: Visual readers can pause anytime they need to think for a moment, resuming from wherever their finger held the spot. Audio, though, needs to account for the necessary time to think. Audio storytellers need to embrace silence on occasion so that listeners can digest.
And finally, audible texts create an intimacy that doesn’t exist in print. This essay is a call for more of that intimacy. The spoken word physically works because the speaker vibrates vocal chords which move molecules in the air, which then tickle follicles of hair in the listener’s ear. Even if that sound is recorded by microphone, translated to 1s and 0s, saved as an audio file, transmitted over the internet, and played back through a set of headphones, whoever spoke the words in that initial recording ultimately used their body to affected the listener in a physical way: Spoken words move people. As Anne Fernald put it in an episode of Radiolab, “sound is…touch at a distance.” I challenge you to do more to move your audience more intentionally. Let’s even get intimate with our words.
Take out your microphone, make some noise, and give your writing a voice.
A version of this piece was originally published as part of Digital Writing Month 2014.