The Sound on the Page


David Candow

Last Saturday morning, as is my wont, I was sitting in the club chair in the living room, paging through the newspaper, fitfully checking e-mail, and  listening to Weekend Edition on NPR. My wandering attention was called back home by the sound of host Scott Simon embarking on his weekly essay. I call it an “essay,” but that’s kind of a fussy word for the personal, sometimes quirky, always intelligent commentary I look forward to hearing every week.

On Saturday, it was an obituary for a man named David Candow, a Newfoundland native who’d once been hired by NPR to work with hosts on writing and delivery. Initially, Simon admitted, he and his colleagues were resistant to Candow, for the simple reason that he was a consultant. “We figure they’ve been brought in by executives who have usually never recorded more than a voice-mail message, and want all hosts to sound the same.”

But after a while, Simon started to listen to Candow’s message.

“Don’t announce,” he said. “Talk. Don’t act. Be yourself. It’s a very hard thing, eh?” he’d say. “To be yourself in front of all those people.”

I don’t have a radio show. I write words on a screen that will eventually appear on other screens, and when I’m lucky in books. But as Simon described the gospel according to Candow, it hit home. He said the consultant “had a few rules for writing, which he called ‘good ideas,’ because he knew journalists balk at rules.”

Simon ran through the ideas/rules:

Be clear and conversational. Don’t put long, multi-titled, hyphenated prefaces before names.

“Would you ask a friend,” asked David, “‘Have you seen the new movie by actor, producer and five-time-Academy Award nominee Brad Pitt?’ You’d probably say, ‘Have you seen the new Brad Pitt movie?’”

Don’t say, “Composer Phillip Glass.” Say, “Phillip Glass has written a new opera.”

Give people credit, David said with a wry half-smile. “After all, they listen to you, don’t they?”

Avoid dependent clauses, he advised, so people don’t have to chase a sentence the way a cat tries to catch up with the end of a string.

Try to avoid words that end in i-n-g. All those extra letters and sounds slow a sentence. Say, “The Dodgers play tonight,” not “are playing.”

Say rain or snow, not precipitation. Avoid corporate and technical clichés, and if you begin to hear a word too much—bandwidth, curate, eclectic, and robust are my current least-favorites—it’s become a cliché; don’t use it.

No arguments here. In fact, setting these guidelines down has already made me change the second sentence of this post.

But what’s really stuck with me, surprisingly enough, is what Candow told Simon and his other charges about sound. As I say, I write stuff that’s meant to be taken in silently. Yet it’s true, wordiness and dependent clauses and stale journalese can make my prose feel—as I go over it—like it’s awkwardly stumbling into my ears. Good writing, for whatever medium, feels like it’s coming from an identifiable human being, talking to another.

That’s why the best piece of advice that can be given to people who want to improve their writing, the one I always tell my writing classes, is: read your stuff aloud. That’s the only way to improve your ear, till you can execute the process silently. Then your ear becomes a metaphorical “ear,” and you can begin to develop a voice that’s no less identifiable or potent for being silent.

The key to the mysterious process is a staple of teen advice columns, no less true for being a cliché (and no less difficult, either). It’s what David Candow told Scott Simon.

“If you can be yourself,” he said, “you’ll sound like no one else, and people really hear what’s real.”

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