The 4th R!

5 Jan

One hundred years or so ago, there were FOUR R’s taught in elementary school. We all think readily of the first three, [Reading, (w)Riting, and (a)Rithmetic] but for a writer or singer, the fourth was by far the most important. Recitation. I remember it, and also remember not being overly fond of it, but a child’s wish didn’t matter much to the teachers or supervisors back then. In those days (before the advent of all this too-loud media—remember, this was even in the days BEFORE [gasp!] Television!) speaking intelligibly and pleasingly was very important to everyone. It was of course, essential to be understood by everyone, and so recitation was a necessary part of one’s education.

Obviously, an actor or singer needs to know how to use the spoken/sung words, but I think it’s also almost as important for a writer. People complain all the time about writing dialogue: the writer hates it, and readers complain about it. “It’s too stiff!” Or “It’s stilted. It just doesn’t sound like real people talking.”

Indeed. Think about the plays of Shakespeare, for instance. To the uneducated ear (in our modern day, that is) the words can be vastly intimidating. They make no sense whatever. But give them to a trained actor, and the poetry in those same words literally jumps out of every phrase. And guess what? There are almost NO four-letter words in there. (Editorial opinion here: [it’s my blog – I’m allowed!]  We’ve permitted too many junk words to replace older words that had meaning. It is possible to express oneself very well without using all those crutches, believe me. If you can’t think of the right word – start looking. I guarantee there is one.) You and your readers will be much happier.

As an example – think of all the classic movies from the 30s through the 50s. They weren’t  laden with profanity, because ordinary people didn’t speak that way; they knew other words to use. And it IS those words and the way they were spoken that made the movie the classic that it is. (Or if they did use profanity or other offensive words, they knew when and where to use them!) I don’t know if it’s laziness or the loss of civility that allowed this runaway train to be on the loose, but I think it needs to be caught and restrained. (Yes, I AM an old fuddy-duddy!)

The rhythm of the words is equally important. Spaces happen between words—whether written or spoken—for a reason. A major complaint these days is that people speak so fast they can’t be understood. And this comment isn’t only uttered by seniors, either! Musicians know that the pauses in music are as important as the notes that are played.

This is one reason why I always suggest (advise, actually) that writers read their own work out loud – to a sympathetic listener or critique partner. If this is not always workable, invest in a small tape recorder. Record, then play it back and listen to it yourself. IS it stilted? Does it flow? Do characters interrupt each other? Was that a sentence that could just have easily been three? Or two? Does each character have a different or unique voice? A good or normal sentence should not require stopping to catch your breath in the middle of it.

In debating, it’s a common trick to repeat the nub of the question at the beginning of one’s response – this allows one to gather stray thoughts into a sensible whole. As a writer, you can utilize this same concept in your dialogue, and then just go back and eliminate the redundancies.

A great way to hear how this works is to get some tapes/CDs/whatevers from your local library. If they don’t have an audio collection, they should be able to get some through interlibrary loan. As you listen pay special attention to inflection. Are the words and/or meaning really boring?

Good poetry spoken by a trained actor can be an amazing revelation. Try it for yourself. If you’re not familiar with it, look up ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning. You can easily find not only the words, but multiple audio versions as well, with a quick search on the web.

As I look back at it now, recitation also offered a lot of fringe benefits: each student was required to get up in front of the class to recite. We learned to speak properly, look around the room (not by rote) but at each student, use our voices to speak softly or louder, faster or slower—we were actors in training, learning how to simulate laughter or tears, as the words commanded. We learned to pronounce all the words correctly. In spite of ourselves and the sometimes laughter of our fellow students, we learned a degree of poise that served us well in future endeavors. Some of us even learned these same lessons from participating in church services.

Voice is an important factor in writing. It can mean the ‘writer’s voice’ and some writers can be identified solely by their voice, or it can mean how the writer voices his characters.

Try it! You, too, might be pleasantly surprised!


As always, if you have questions, comments or objections, please leave a comment or write to me at:

See you next week with the story of how I came to write my first book!



One Response to “The 4th R!”

  1. jeremy January 10, 2011 at 5:16 am #


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