30 May 2012

Flunking the Oral Exam

by Robert Lopresti

Those of you who turn on your computer with trembling hands every Wednesday morning, eagerly awaiting my latest contribution to civilization, will no doubt recall that last week I was rushing to get a piece of fiction into shipshape before a deadline.

Yesterday I decided it was just about perfect, and that it was almost time for me to kiss it goodbye and set it on its merry way.  But first came the final test I give every story: reading it out loud.  It is amazing how often the ear will catch what completely glides past the eye.  This time I decided, on a whim, to keep track of how many corrections I made.

Big mistake.  Would you believe I made 94 changes in my near-perfect manuscript?

Now, to be fair, only a few of them could be called mistakes.  Instead they were exactly the type of infelicities the oral reading is intended to catch.  For example, the same word showing up three times in a paragraph.  Maybe that's a good opportunity to bring in a synonym.  Not errors, just improvements.

But let's talk about the genuine boo-boos, because they amazed me.

* In my last draft I added a sentence about "the awful Iowa waters."  Waters? I thought I had written "winters."
* I wrote "the colors would have magnificent."  
I swear, I noted the missing word "been" at least five times and somehow forgot to add it every time.
*  When my character thinks someone is reaching for his money, "his hands folded reflexively over it."  Which would be fine, but what I ACTUALLY wrote was "folded reflectively..."  
Maybe he had mirrors on his fingers?

What drives me nuts about that last one is that I know for a fact that I wrote it in the first draft, which means it slid past me in at least twenty rereads.  Almost as bad was one I caught a few drafts ago, in which the same character was complaisant about a compliment.  No, dammit.  He was complacent.

I think I need to reread Adrian Room's Dictionary of Confusable Words.

And we won't even discuss the afternoon that shifted from rainy to sunny in the course of one page without anyone commenting on it.  Sigh...

I was so depressed I didn't have the gumption to print the story out for one more read.  But I will.  Sisyphus and I have our stones to roll.  Watch out below!


  1. I'm a believer in reading a piece aloud. Sometimes it's a pesky tool but effective. I recall James and I debated this issue, but I can't recall what his conclusion was.

    Occasionally I try letting my computer read stories back to me, but I find the start-stop a bit distracting. Better I should read to it!

  2. Even better than reading it aloud to yourself is to have someone else read it to you. That doublechecks word substitutions and also punctuation somewhat because if the cold reader doesn't pause at the right times, it can frequently be corrected with punctuation.

  3. In the past, when I was actively "lawyering" I always recommended that staff lawyers read briefs and memos out loud. One fellow, a bit challenged with sentence construction, once offered the following sentence to describe a situation where courts had established a precedent that Congress then reversed:

    "Eventually the situation became so bad that Congress had to relieve on it."

    It is extremely difficult for me to imagine writing that sentence. It is impossible to imagine it surviving an out-loud rendition!

  4. I'm with you, Rob...reading aloud is a very good tool for all kinds of improvement. I do it myself to the point where I've nearly memorized the story and still find errors and poor word choices.

    Fran, I think your idea is a good one, too. It also has the advantage that you can blame the reader!

  5. Put me down as a read-alouder. At the end of my writing day, I read aloud what I have written. During my work time, I read aloud anything I've written that doesn't quite work. I read aloud (and act the parts) after every revision. I often wonder what the neighbors think when I am shouting things that involve weapons, blood,and murder. ;)

  6. I tried reading aloud but for some reason reading my own writing aloud seemed strange. About two months ago, I decided to let the computer read it to me. I like stopping to correct and then continuing; it makes me stop and think again and again and again....

    Still haven't figured out how to avoid the anxiety of finally ushering my creation out into the world.

  7. Leigh, I don't recall ever having a debate on reading work out loud . . . but I think it's a valuable practice. More important than catching slips, as Rob describes, is making sure the cadence is right, that the reader doesn't stumble on one's deathless prose. That's the difference between merely relating a story and actually telling a story.

    I think I've mentioned it before, but the late great science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon (he of Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety per cent of everything is crap") once criticized the also late and great Roger Zelazny for writing too beautifully. I paraphrase, but Sturgeon said something along the lines that when you bark your shin against a piece of furniture in the dark, you don't care that it's an exquisite Louis XIV coffee table you collided with.

    In "Inner Fire", I had the 23-year-old narrator, Erica, use the phrase "to die for." John Floyd, who reviewed the story before I sent it in, remarked that he hated that idiom but advised I leave it in because "it's something she would say."


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