Being a Better Writer: Reading VS Hearing

Welcome back writers! It’s Monday, and you know what that means. That, or this is your first time stumbling across this corner of the web and are just in awe or suspicion of what you’ve found. Maybe both.

Well, if you’re a writer or looking to do some writing, let me reassure you. This is Being a Better Writer, and you are in the right place.

Now, a quick aside before we dive into today’s promised topic, which is a … contentious one, to say the least. If you’ve not been on the site over the weekend, then you might have missed out on Saturday’s Starforge preview, which gave everyone their first look at what’s become of Annalyne Neres since the end of Jungle, plus her first steps in the finale of the UNSEC Space Trilogy. Action-packed steps, of course.

In related news, Starforge is getting closer to release with each passing day, but also now closer to a pre-order date. The Copy-Edit is nearing, and once the novel is in that phase, the pre-orders can go live. I’ll keep you all up to date on that as things progress.

Now, one more bit of spooky news before we head into today’s topic. Because it is the Halloween season, Dead Silver will be on sale starting tonight at midnight, and will remain on sale through October 31st. You can click that link there or find the book via the Books tab, but keep that in mind if you’ve not read it. It’s a perfect little spooky mystery for the Halloween weekend, so if you’re reading this after midnight, October 24th, do yourself a favor and snag a copy! It’s spooky good fun, and an enjoyable read.

All right, that’s all the news and whatnot taken care of. Now lets get down to business and talk about todays—as I warned—contentious topic.

This one I think is going to puzzle some, while being a revelation others. It’s one of those aspects of writing and publishing books that you really have to be immersed in some part of the production or output of to be aware of, but again as previously stated it’s also something that brings with it no small amount of controversy, especially among certain circles and with regards to both writing and editing a book.

You ready? Then hit the jump. Let’s talk about reading versus hearing.

Some of you may have guessed already what this topic is getting toward based on the title. But for those that haven’t—and don’t worry if you haven’t; this is a sort of odd one most don’t realize or acknowledge—I pose to you a question: Has the writing of books, along with the editing and the focus, changed in the last ten years?

Now, while you ponder that, I give you this aside: Of course language changes. Books have been changing in their vernacular and style for as long as books have existed. The works of Mark Twain, for example, show the signs of having been written in the period in which Twain lived, as do other books from that time. It’s all but impossible to argue that books from different eras don’t bear the marks of how people speak and read or what they value in terms of what a story focuses on or chooses to address from each era. This is why though there are many regency-era books written today, none of them are written in the same exact vernacular or style as Pride and Prejudice. Likewise, Dune is different from similar books of scope and focus written today. I would go so far as to say that if Twain, or Austin, or Herbert were alive and writing their magnum opuses today, one would find notable differences of focus, language, and style from their historical counterparts. It doesn’t mean that they’re unreadable, or that one would be better than the other, but that language and storytelling shift and flow over time. Stories can remain timeless while still bearing the marks of their era. Look how many people still read Shakespeare, after all.

Okay, so that’s all well and good as well as understood, but what does it mean in the context of the question I posed above. Has the writing and editing of books changed in the last ten years? Many of you are probably saying “No, at least not out of slang or small changes.”

Well … You’re wrong. Sorry. Because books have seen a sweeping change in the last decade, one that many find contentious and disagreeable. I myself have seen arguments and rants of passion against this change online from those very opposed to it. And I’ve seen readers caught off-guard when they’ve finally “noticed” this shift. I’ve seen people react to authors shifting in just the course of a few books, either for or against the new style of writing that has come out of it.

What on Earth am I talking about? I’m talking about a new change in the way people consume books, a change that has brought with it a different approach to writing and editing that has for a long time been by the wayside.

I’m talking about audiobooks.

Some of you might have guessed that this was the subject of today’s post. Like me, you may have seen the impassioned pleas of those online to “stop changing writing for audiobooks.” The rest of you are probably thinking “Sands and Storms what is he talking about? Has he gone mad? How have audiobooks changed anything?”

Well, let me explain. See, audiobooks have boomed in the last decade. And when I say boomed, I mean it’s like a freaking gold rush.

It was the humble MP3 that did it. See, prior to the MP3, if you wanted an audiobook, you got either a set of tapes or a set of CDs. And I mean a lot of CDs. The unabridged CD audio version of The Lord of the Rings, for example, was a staggering 46 CDs. If you didn’t have a CD player and were using cassette tapes, it was a staggering 33 tapes.

For the really young among the readers here, a CD is like a Blu-Ray or a DVD but holds a lot less. A tape is even older and more finicky. Google a cassette tape if you’re having trouble picturing it.

Anyway, this all meant that audiobooks—or as they were more commonly known at least in my region of childhood, books on tape—were kind of awkward and finicky. Therefore they were common, but not that common. If you wanted to listen to The Lord of the Rings on audiobook, for example, you needed to carry with you a discman and all the CDs you’d get through while you were listening. Since a CD could only hold under 80 minutes of reading at a time, if you had an eight-hour shift to get through you’d need to change CDs five times, meaning you needed to bring six CDs with you … and yeah, that could be a bit of a hassle.

It wasn’t that audiobooks weren’t a thing: They were. They just … had issues. It was easier to just carry a book and read it most of the time, or listen to the radio, or just not bother. Again, they had their place, but it was limited because the format was awkward.

But then the MP3 came along, and suddenly that awkwardness vanished. Even the earliest MP3 players could hold that entire discography of The Lord of the Rings mentioned above and still have space left over for a good couple of gigs or so of music atop that.

Now the industry didn’t catch on to this at first. There were a few companies that saw the writing on the wall, such as Baen, who started including free CDs full of complete audiobooks in MP3 with some of their hardcovers to drum up interest. And there were plenty of people who started to realize that they could go to the library, grab a few books on CD, rip them, and return the CDs so that they could listen to the audiobook on their MP3 player over the next few days without handling the CDs.

It was only a matter of time until audiobook makers made the same move to the digital sphere. And once they did, audiobooks exploded. Millions—and that number might be too low by multiple zeroes—of people “discovered” audiobooks as suddenly companies like audible allowed them to download a book onto their phone or MP3 player so that they could listen while jogging, working, walking, driving, etc etc all without any of the prior hassle that had once limited the feasibility of such technology.

Audiobooks became a gold mine as hundreds of millions discovered books that they never had time to read but could now listen to. Audiobook sales have just in the last five years more than doubled, the industry growing at more than 20% per year. Sure, that will eventually stabilize, but right now it’s a billion-dollar boom among people who largely didn’t access it before.

Okay, so there’s the history. But many of you, I’m sure, are still wondering what any of this has to do with writing. Or hearing. Or what I spoke of above, with editing and language.

Well, now that we’ve got the background out of the way, we can dive into the controversy. I’ll begin by asking a simple question: should a book be read silently or aloud?

Warning: Your answer might be contentious. And met with scorn and derision from some of the book-reading community.

Why? Because we will write a sentence differently when it’s read aloud than if it is read silently, or in the mind. Those of you that are nodding in realization of what’s happened may have it.

See, authors began exploding into the audiobook sphere. No longer was an audiobook a rare thing that maybe some might one day see. Many authors started making more money from their audiobooks than from their regular sales. But in listening to those audiobooks, they started noticing things. Reused words, or turns of phrase that looked good on paper but really didn’t work that well when spoken aloud. Because there is a truth that writing a story and telling a story come from different skillsets. This is why storytelling is its own skill and talent, and not every author that can write a good story is a natural with the skills of storytelling.

Now, this isn’t to say that authors were going down to the county fair and entering storytelling contests, but that they were noticing that some of the things they’d written, while functional and correct for a written word, did not carry over to a spoken form as well as they’d liked.

And with audiobooks being their new focus, or even a large portion of their market, they began to change their writing to suit this new format. Removing old phrases that had worked just fine in writing but now sounded a little off when spoken aloud and repeated often. “Proper English” gave way to “But that doesn’t sound right if you read it aloud.”

At which point the controversy begin to build. Those that were listening to these books felt that they were getting better, the writing smoother and easier to parse while listening too. But those that were the “silent readers?” Those that weren’t listening to the audiobooks but curling up with a paperback to read in their own mindscape? Many of them also noticed the shift, but they didn’t like it. To them, the language was changing. Moving away from what had been beautiful or aesthetically pleasing writing to something that was pleasing when spoken aloud. It was, as I’ve seen many complain, moving away from “correct English” in favor of spoken slang, or punctuation or sentences that made more sense when listened to than when read.

I have seen people claim to have given up authors over this. Because the writing has shifted and changed away from the “‘”style” that they wanted or were comfortable with. We have reached the point now when I have seen people review books and use “it reads like it was written to be an audiobook” as a strike against it, because in their opinion the sentences and phrasing aren’t written for smoothness and quality for the person reading but for a listener. I’ve seen opinions posted that the shift toward audiobooks is ‘dumbing down literature’ or ‘ruining the reading experience.’

Now, I want to make it clear before we move on that I don’t agree with these people. Writing has always shifted and changed and metamorphosed. Everything does. Audiobooks are a shift—I make no disagreement there. Indeed, there are authors that have admitted openly that they’ve changed how they write their books because of the focus on audiobooks. This is a very real change.

But I do disagree with those that decry it. It’s just the newest form of “get off my lawn with your newfangled rock music” that’s a tale as old as tales themselves. “In my day stories were about men with clubs hunting beasts like men, not forging ‘metal’ and making traps!” That kind of thing.

However, as we are here to discuss writing with Being a Better Writer, the writers of today need to be aware of this change and shift in how books are written and edited. Ultimately, this is an issue of audience that you will need to engage with at some point. You will have to decide which to approach to follow. Will your book be spoken, or will it be silent?

Now as an aside, if you’re just struggling to write a book for now, then I do want to stress that this isn’t any sort of issue that should make you stop. The question here is one of approach and will likely impact more in the editing phase than the writing phase, as you’ll find people may disagree on how something should be parsed or presented based on how they’re approaching it.

For instance, I read my sentences aloud when I want to edit them, listening to how they sound when spoken and feel to say aloud. However, more than once I’ve had a disagreement with someone during the editing process as they wanted it to be “grammatically correct” and my rebuttal was that reading the “perfectly correct” version aloud sounded both awful and stilted … which it did. Ultimately, I tend—but not always—to choose that which sounds better spoken aloud even if it means bending or flexing the rules of grammar a little.

However, as noted above, this decision is incredibly unpopular with some audiences who are very against it. Again, I’m not arguing for wholehearted destruction of the English language here—though some do seem to think so—but that there are two approaches to writing your book, any book, with regards to how it is read” Aloud or silently. And depending on which you have in mind your approach may change.

Do you need a comma there? Proper English may say yes, but reading it aloud with that pause may sound quite stilted indeed in context. What about the words you used? They flow in the mind, yes, but do they flow well when spoken aloud, or are they an overly problematic patois?

Here’s the thing with this post today. There’s no right or wrong answer. This is something that is happening now, in the moment. A shift in writing style, approach, and language to meet a new medium where books are listened to and not read. Except they are still read, which leaves all authors, would-be and otherwise, with an interesting choice ahead of them. Which approach will they take?

There is no right or wrong answer. Again I stress this. Those against or for one or the other will make their arguments, but the truth is that both can create wonderful books. I’m not arguing that the rules of English no longer matter, or that we can do whatever we want, either. The point of this post is to draw attention to a change. A shift. A new avenue, if you will. A choice for each of us to make. How do we want our book to be read. Are we writing for the ease of speaking aloud, or for the poetry of language?

Such a question has always been there before, but audiobooks have pulled it into sharp relief for many.

But again, there is no right or wrong answer, despite what others may say because they believe in one or the other. Why talk about it, then?

Because it will be important when you at the very least edit your book or story. Regardless of whether or not you’ve written to one audience or the other, regardless of your style, you’re going to get people, perhaps even in your editing team, that say “But shouldn’t this be this?” You may have to reach a middle ground, or even capitulate if you’re with a publisher and they have a vision of which audience you need to sell to.

Sands, maybe we’ll even see some authors tweaking the audio and print versions of their books in the future, or having the editing crews split to create “editions” to appeal to one audience or the other in smoother fashion.

Largely however, this isn’t something that is going to impact the focus of your story, or what genre you write. It doesn’t even have to affect your style. You can just write your story and worry about it later. Or it can be something that sits in the back of your mind as an audience indicator while you work. Maybe you’re not going for an audiobook, but you do want a story that parents can read to their children, and so you want to avoid writing sentences that, while pretty, are also tongue-twisters that may trip up the unwary. Or perhaps you just want your book to have a more comfortable, fireside cozy sort of feel like the reader is listening a narrator, an opt for a more casual presentation that would read well in that situation.

Again, there’s no right or wrong here, no more than there’s a right or wrong to making a film black-and-white or shooting and framing shots with the mindset of the size of screen your audience will be watching on (that’s a real thing, in case you didn’t know).

Yes, there are people that aggressively are for or against it. And you know what? You can both appeal to one side or the other or just ignore them. But just because there is no right or wrong doesn’t mean that there will never be a choice to make. At some point, you’ll want to ask yourself what you’re going for. Do you want that sentence you just wrote out to beautiful prose, fluid in its application within the rules? Or do you want it to be easier to parse aloud by someone reading your book to an audience?

There’s no right or wrong here. Just storytelling. In one medium, another, or somewhere in-between. And whether you make a conscious choice to step toward one side or the other, or just write for the joy of it, even just knowing that such a differentiation exists isn’t a bad idea. Because you never know when you may have to make a call.

Regardless of what choice you make, we’re all writing in the end.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Reading VS Hearing

  1. I hit a hint of this when I was reading The Lazy Dragon to my mother right pre-publication. I kept having to grab my pencil and muttering, “That doesn’t sound right.” (And that’s just a tiny little kiddie story that only got delayed a day or two)


    • Yeah, it has consistently been something that I’ve had come up with editing books. More than once someone has said “This needs to be like this” and I’ve pointed out that said aloud it sounds quite poor and stilted. Some go “Oh, good point” while others get upset.


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