Ears versus eyes

I wasn’t eavesdropping.

I swear.

My son, Carlin, is in Grade 11. He has the biggest essay assignment of his life bubbling away on the hotplate this spring, so we’ve had a few conversations about writing, organizing our thoughts, capturing our reader’s interest, and avoiding that greatest of sins, the passive voice.

(Ah, yes, the passive voice. Note to self: Start drafting my anti-passive-voice rant. The over-heated HST pros/con debate in BC is providing me with lots of great examples right now!)

I’m excited about his project for many reasons. One: not that long ago he could barely put together a cogent email; now, his writing has progressed so far that his teacher gave him a personal challenge to prepare an essay that is somewhat larger than the class assignment! Two: he’s writing about a topic that has had a profound effect on my own life and health, food. (More on that topic here, Three: he really cares about this paper, and is researching and writing really hard, almost like he’s on a mission.

Then, this weekend, he gave me a fourth reason to be excited about his assignment.

Before I tell you why, I’ll tell you the same thing I told him about something I have learned to do when the message I want to communicate via writing really matters a lot.

I read it out loud.

If I can, I read it out loud to someone close to me — they are the most likely to be the most annoyed when I make no sense! Their stabs at my “beautiful work” can hurt, but even I, infamous Queen of Defensive Over-Reactions, must confess that their critiques are more like a surgeon’s scalpel than they are a switchblade.

However, I don’t always have a willing victim close at hand (I wonder why?), so I’ve had to develop an effective workaround. Reading my work aloud to myself helps me find “trippy” spots, the places where my language doesn’t flow as well as I imagine it does as I type it.

Back to Carlin and my fourth reason for excitement about his work-in-progress. It came from a conversation I overhead him having with a classmate on his cellphone, upstairs. I swear again, I wasn’t eavesdropping. He was talking so loudly, excitedly, jocularly, that I couldn’t help but hear every word as they came tumbling down the banister and into my ears.

He had just discovered an important editing device that he found both useful and funny, and was sharing this new knowledge with a classmate who was also grappling with the same monster assignment.

“I had it all drafted, and it was really good. And then I started reading it out loud.”

(He listened to some of my advice? Cool!)

“It sounded so ridiculous, I had no idea what I was trying to say — and I WAS THE ONE WHO WROTE IT!” he bellowed, laughing his head off. “It all made perfect sense in my head when I wrote it, but it made no sense at all when I read it out loud.” More guffaws.

(Since then, he’s been madly editing away. He has even asked me to read it through for him. That’s even more than cool!)

Sounds like the ears are better editors than the eyes!