Do you “say” the words in your head when you read? That little voice in your mind running commentary on your life likely reads to you when your eyes pass over text. I bet you’re doing it right now.
You probably don’t give it much thought—you’ve been doing it since you were little—until an awkward phrase or difficult-to-pronounce word trips up that voice and slows your reading. If you would have troubles reading something aloud, you have troubles reading it quietly to yourself, because that inner voice also has to manage pronunciation, cadence, and rhythm.
This Imgur post I saw last week discusses this concept of subvocalizing. The poster explains that subvocalizing exhausts you mentally because it employs a relay of brain functions that transfer the stimuli from the visual to motor to auditory cortices and then to the frontal lobe. In sum, your brain does a lot more work than it has to. Subvocalizing also slows down your reading because you read every letter and punctuation mark, as if you were speaking out loud.
The poster provides advice on how to break the subvocalizing habit and read quietly, without that voice in your head reading to you. Because you’re trying to break a habit that is perhaps tens of years engrained into you, the poster says it will take dedicated time and practice to succeed. Comprehending what you’re reading at the now faster pace is the biggest challenge.
I tried some of the poster’s techniques to read quietly. It sort of worked. And it was strange. It felt as though I wasn’t grasping what I was reading, that the words were going in my eyes and out the top of my head. That feeling would probably go away in time as I adjusted to this new reading technique.
However, my first thought after “this is strange” was “why would I want to do this?” The top-rated comment on the Imgur post summarizes my feelings well: “i rather love my subvocaliztion, helps me understand different voices and inflections. but you just made a new part of my brain click, so +1.”
I can see this reading style being useful for reading dry non-fiction text, but I also like my inner voice. It adds just the right amount of snarkiness to a sarcastic narrator, invigorates an excited child’s mispronounced dialogue, and catches the rhythmic beat of a well-turned phrase. My inner voice picks up on and amplifies the emotion, tone, and meaning of a text. Without it, reading to me becomes too intellectual, detached…too impassive.
Why is speed so important, anyway? Reading quietly, and quickly, can do a disservice to the author’s work. The Imgur poster notes how, when we subvocalize, “We. Even. Take. A. Pause. At. Every. Punctuation.” Yes, reading like that slows us down, but those periods are supposed to do just that. The pause from the periods emphasize for effect; they highlight the meaning of the punctuated words and draw attention to them for a reason. If you were to breeze over them without subvocalizing, you might lose that emphasis and meaning.
In ridding yourself of your inner voice, you lose a bit of the author’s voice, as well. And that’s no good. I like the voices in my head, and I, for one, am going to keep listening to them.
I gave my friend her birthday gift last weekend and ended up giving myself a rather unexpected gift: a new creative interest.
I took her to a painting workshop on abstract art. The workshop took a free painting approach. Our instructor demonstrated different tools and techniques to paint with, directed our attention to the paintings hung around the studio and the small photo albums of art clippings for inspiration, and said that he would be available to answer any of our questions. We were left to paint whatever we wanted however we wanted.
Which was perfect for my friend and me, since neither of us had done any painting since elementary school. We splurted various acrylic colours onto our palettes and let our paints take us wherever they led. And just like the first blank page when writing, my blank canvas intimidated me. I didn’t know where to start, and I didn’t want to ruin my painting with an errant brush stroke or poorly mixed colour. There are no erasers or backspace or undo buttons for canvas.
I soon learned, though, that with layering, blending, and combining colours, mistakes became sources of intention and inspiration. I gained control over my canvas as I determined how to manipulate the acrylics and various tools to create different effects. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was creating something. I, one who cannot even doodle, was creating a painting.
That knowledge smacked me with delight. Painting, drawing, sketching—all the visual art stuff—I deeply admire but never imagined I could do myself and feel such joy doing it. But I did. Painting in that workshop filled me with as much creative energy and excitement as any of my other creative hobbies. Suddenly, I wanted to rush out and turn my apartment into a painting studio and line my walls with my own works.
Of course I had not intended to give myself a gift when I gave my friend her birthday gift, but I have no other words to describe my experience at that painting workshop. It was a gift to discover another creative interest, another avenue for self-expression, another form of creativity.
It reminds me that us creatives can be even more creative than we think and that we need not relegate ourselves to our one, primary creative passion. We also don’t need to be masters at the hobby to find joy in it. Sometimes, being a novice gives us the freedom to experiment, to make mistakes, to laugh, and to enjoy.
Last week’s post ended on a bit of a facetious note, coming from this new, young proofreader. I want only to improve an author’s work, and sometimes when even an author doesn’t know what’s best for her own work, a close-minded stet is indeed frustrating. But don’t you worry, authors, because I am also a writer, and I appreciate the desire to protect what you’ve written, down to the last comma.
In truth, I am still amazed at how much power proofreaders have.* After the author approves or rejects a copyeditor’s changes—and not all changes are flagged for approval or rejection—the author doesn’t get to see her own manuscript again until it is published. This blindness means that any changes the proofreader makes go undocumented and unquestioned and, as the last step in the editing process, are definitive.
The published book, then, is subtly different from the manuscript the author approved at the copyediting stage. The author herself might not recognize the changes—it’s been a while since she was so intimate with her work—but the reader will experience every little change. An added comma here, an expletive removed there, and a run-on sentence broken into two all change the voice of the book, and the reader will hear a different tone.
Thus, every time I input a change to a manuscript, I consider its implications to the author’s style. I know how deliberate authors are in their word choice, punctuation style, and phrasing. I can correct those elements which are incorret or do not follow house style, but in doing so I might be reversing a conscious choice the author made and thereby disrupting the text’s meaning or rhythm. There is a fine, invisible line between correct and author style. With every manuscript I do my utmost to find it.
It’s challenging to find, though, when author style defies grammar and logic or equates to bad writing. How much can I correct and alter before the writing is no longer the author’s? Sometimes, all I can do is stet.
*Note that I speak here only to the proofreading I do. The publishing house I work for employs its proofreaders almost as second copyeditors. While we search for and correct typesetting and editing errors, such as incorrect text styling, spelling mistakes, typos , and the like, we also have authority to add, remove, or change punctuation and minor phrasing to enhance clarity and meaning—all without querying the editor. Alterations beyond the minor scope must be queried, however.