April 18, 2011

The Test of Great Writing

A couple of weeks ago we had a major southern storm that left us powerless for four days. During daylight hours we spent a lot of time at the library, but at night we passed the time reading aloud by candlelight from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

This little exercise made me realize several things. First, I was amazed that the author’s writing could so easily draw us in and make us want more. His was a skill that had been honed and practiced and mastered.

I was also keenly aware that in earlier pre-electricity and pre-technology days writing had to be crafted with tremendous skill because readers were so much more intent on the writing. Every word was read and analyzed and the rhythms and cadences were easily detected by the ear when read aloud. Even a minor infarction was glaring.

My, how things have changed! Today the writing is often secondary to the message or the personality writing it. We are a rushed people. We want it short and to the point. Rarely do we take time to linger over words, letting them sink in gradually and fully. We equate writing to fast food rather than a meal to be savored.

And we are saturated with words. They bombard us from every direction. It’s like a kid who eats non-nutritious snacks all day and then snubs a gourmet meal when it’s set before him. We read so much that often the last thing we want to do is think too hard or digest writing that isn’t simple and easy.

That doesn’t make us bad or wrong. It’s simply the way life is now. The pace is faster, the savoring less.

But I wonder how we might feel about some of the writing that’s available today if we had to read it by candlelight night after night. If we took the time to focus, to really hear the way the author has streamed the words together, to shut out all other input and let the words speak to us. Would it be music to our ears or clanging cymbals?

After our experience in the dark, I’ve decided that it would be a great test of our own writing to have someone read it aloud to us by quiet candlelight. I venture to guess that our mistakes would slap us in the face and interruptions to the flow of words would be painfully obvious. But when all was said and done, a lot of editors might be job hunting.

Light a candle today. I dare you!



Wendy said...

I so agree! My favorite reading is 'old' writing for that very reason--it's richly written, words treated as art.

At a writer's conference I attended, one magazine article instructor cautioned us on using "big" words; he told us to 'dumb down' our vocabulary to the education level of the average reader, 8th grade or less. I have been in full revolt against that thought ever since--why shouldn't we as writers, through excellent writing and mastery of our language, 'bring up' our readers and challenge them a bit??

Thanks for the good thoughts. :-)

Mining for Diamonds said...

Great post! I never thought of this in terms of writing, but it is very similar to classical music in a way. My students had complained about the length of ONE movement of a symphonic work, not realize they had only listened to 1/4 of the piece! I explained to them that back in the day it was a privilege to listen to live music, and they didn't have iPods or radios or record players or CDs or any way to record that music. Plus...they had nothing else to do! It was nothing to spend a leisurely evening listening to a 3 hour opera, or hearing a Beethoven Symphony played over and over again at a concert! They did not live a fast paced life.

Hmmm...perhaps one day I will try to read by candlelight! I don't know, though...I've been spoiled, I like my lightbulbs quite a bit, lol!

Linda said...

Oh yes Bonita! I spent hours yesterday lost in Elizabeth Gaskell's writing. It is the third time I've read "Wives and Daughter," but it captivates every time.
I am drawn to the old classics just for the reasons you've described so well.

Recovering Church Lady said...

This is so true. One of my main self tests is to read my pieces aloud several times. That really illuminates any dis-jointed or confusing sentences. Thank you for a great blog, I enjoy your place very much!

rachel hope said...

I agree fully, I only try and read the classics for that reason, I love the way you described it, thank you for the suggestion I will definitely will try.

Richella said...

Hi Bonita!

We're back at home--Jack is doing wonderfully well post-op, and we're both relieved to be out of the hospital. He still hasn't gotten much sleep, but it's certainly helping that I don't wake him every four hours to take his vitals!

I love this post. Your point is a good one. Perhaps not every blog post need be a work that would pass the "candlelight test," but hopefully some of them can be!

By the way, I had to chuckle at a tiny typo of yours, one that evidences your medical background. You typed "infarction" rather than "infraction." I'll bet most people don't even know that "infarction" is a real word!

Typos are easily corrected, of course. Poor writing? That takes more work to correct. Thank you for all your encouragement to raise the quality of our work!

Hope you're having a wonderful Holy Week. Love you!


The Director said...

Too true, too true... frankly, I find that the way my writing comes out depends on what books I'm reading. Classics, classics. I don't read enough of them :|

Thanks for the amazing reminder! I'll have to stick a candle in my room and make my friend read by draft to me, now.

Miss Sandy said...

Wonderful post! I think we should all carve out time to read aloud and savor the stringing together of words that are well written. A great tip for writers too to read their writing aloud or have someone else do it to see if the flow is right. I have so missed visiting!

Kathryn Ross said...

Love it! You're on my soapbox with this post. I prefer 19th century literature for this very reason - quality words and plenty of them! Austen, Gaskil, Eliot, Dickens, Conan Doyle, MacDonald - these are the writers I devour. I teach only from the classics - and take my time doing so. Perhaps I'll make some time to curl up by candlelight with a good book in period attire to detox from my presently hectic schedule. Thanks for the good thoughts!