In a 2004 interview with Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-06), on the PBS News Hour, Kooser talked about writing with clarity – so that a piece or passage (in his case, a poem) could be understood by the average person. He recalled how early in his career, when he worked in the insurance business, he would bring a poem in to work and read it to his secretary:
I’m always revising away from difficulty and toward clarity. [. . .] I’d write every morning very early, and then I would bring my work in [to the insurance company where I worked] and I’d say, “Joanne, does this make any sense to you?” And if she said, “Well, no, it doesn’t,” then I would try to find out where it fell down for her.
– Ted Kooser
In an article I did not long ago for my Great Lakes Lit newsletter on the value of reading stories aloud, I mentioned a similar story from a few centuries earlier. The intro to the 1786 edition of Gulliver’s Travels refers to Jonathan Swift asking two menservants whether they understood the meaning of passages read out loud to them.
Swift’s desire: to ensure that his meaning was clear . . . not just to him but to a broader audience.
So often, we fail to recognize how our words force a new reader to stumble, or be puzzled, or to roll their eyes at some intrusion of purple prose or a lame cliche.
Reading passages of your work aloud, whether to your writing group or to a spouse (so few of us have valets, let alone secretaries, to listen to our drafts), is an excellent way to test at least the opening lines of a story or the key paragraph in your pitch letter.
Even if the audience is an imaginary one, reading aloud on your own will allow you to hear your words afresh, using a different part of the brain (and one that was less invested in writing those words . . . and more likely to find a few clunkers that can be improved).