26 Nov 2012

Observations: Eyes vs. Ears

Muriel Higgins sent this along, so I thought it would be good to put it up here on the blog. Many thanks to Muriel for sharing her thoughts and observations on reading vs listening!

What you read on a page with your eyes is different from what you listen to and hear with your ears.  Each medium has something the other lacks, e.g. print on the page can be seen all at once or jumping around, at the reader’s pleasure; while sounds in time are sequential and are not controlled by the listener.
These are some of the characteristics of what you read:
  • you can look ahead and see how long it is, how far to the end
  • you can see how dense it is: lots of speech? slabs of prose?
  • you can choose how fast to read and to look forward or back
  • use of indentation, eg for lists, like this one
  • hierarchy of headings (probably applies more to non-fiction)
  • different typefaces and point sizes, can help understanding
  • use of spaces: between sections, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, even words or letters
  • italics, caps, small caps, bold to show stress/emphasis as intended by author
  • asterisks or superscript numbers for footnotes
  • interpolated signs like (!) or (?) or bracketed letters Hol(e)y ghost
  • variant spelling to suggest character (teenager says alright); place/accent (color, traveled); names spelt differently as time passes He spells it Shaun now; Christina vs Krysztyna in a story about Polish girl now living in UK and adopting a new persona; or informality How ya doin?
  • idiosyncratic speech: Just William’s Violet Elizabeth: I’ll thkweam and thkweam until I’m thick
  • emoticons, OK, not (yet) usual in prose on paper … but hang about …

And some characteristics of what you listen to or hear:
  • the reader-aloud, or narrator, controls speed/tempo and volume, not the listener (you can’t listen faster)
  • the narrator adds interpretation of the text in different ways:
            . different voices for different speakers
           . regional or foreign accents
           . stress and intonation: He wasn’t really very sorry can be said with at least 5 meanings
           . pausing to show contrasts of sections etc

Some of these interpretations are suggested  by the writer:
  • in words: ‘Six o’clock.’  ‘ No, six thirty,’ she corrected gently.
  • word or sentence division: Mum went ba-llistic,  I. Don’t. Want. To. Know.
  • punctuation: … (fade out);  dash (interrupted speech); quotation marks “Lady” Jane, she calls herself.
  • italics, caps etc :  Not Quite the Thing.

Do we write differently for the eye or the ear?
I can’t decide about this, myself and would like to hear others’ thoughts.  
  • When you write you cede a bit of control, either to the reader or the narrator: does this matter?
  • Reading your own stuff is different, you know what you meant when you wrote it.
  • If someone else is going to read it, they need help and guidance …
  • … or are you happy to say Go little book and let it take its chance? 

A few things to ponder:
Reading but not-reading: when you reach the end of a page with your eyes when your brain is elsewhere.  Not-listening also happens.  Does this matter to writers/providers?  Can they make it less likely?  Or is it only to do with the reader/listener/consumer?
Do you read print with an accent?  Review of Schwarzenegger’s autobiography: I read this with a flat Terminator accent.  
Can people talk with spelling mistakes? (asterisk means wrong form) *pronounciation, *antiboetics (which my father always said), *enmity (my favourite) or are these just wrong words?
A journalist resident in Scotland has been said to write with an English accent (not a compliment)
TV review represents heart sign by: There will be a tsunami of ‘I *heart* programmes like this’; written report of a tweet finishes *innocent face*.  So asterisks are quotation marks for emoticons? 
Review of audio books: Many modern novels are distinctly puzzling when heard rather than seen on the page. 
Bill Bryson writes: The cannons didn’t go BOOM! …  they went puff.  Good for eyes and ears both.
I ended a story: Love you lots, Hazza xxx.  Can’t read this aloud, needs gestures, can’t do on radio.
Do kids read out texts to each other, or pass the phone over?

Muriel Higgins, October-November 2012

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