A writing tip I learned at Oxford

No, this is not an essay about commas

Offering writing advice in writing—especially claiming elite level university advice—feels like high stakes. But no stress! We’re here in the #vanlife of a podcasting publication. We’re always exactly where we want to be.

Today I’m going to weave together three things: a writing tip I actually did learn at Oxford, a complaint I’ve heard about audiobooks, and a best selling author that to me is eminently listenable.

In 1998 I loaded up on student loans against the advice of Amherst College’s financial aid advisor, and left our shores for jolly old England. In my first week at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, I was told to choose subjects for my tutorials. These are one-on-one meetings with professors once or twice per week. I told the faculty advisor that I wanted to steep myself in history and literature to accompany the feeling that I got from wandering the storybook campus. He said he had just the tutor for me. And with that, I ended up studying English Romantic poetry with the late Jonathan Wordsworth, who was a great-great-great nephew of the famous poet William Wordsworth.

The way tutorials work is that you meet your tutor, you discuss a subject, and then the tutor assigns one or more essays for the next meeting that will require some additional reading and research to complete. Then at that next meeting, you read your essays aloud to the tutor during the first 10 minutes. The tutor gives direct feedback on your writing, and you move on to repeat the process from the top.

On a cold day in January, Professor Wordsworth’s study smelled like the scout’s cleaning supplies and old books. I sat across from him at his computerless desk sweating and stumbling through a timid technical analysis of a poem by Coleridge. I knew I had blown it. My writing sucked. Professor Wordsworth told me firstly, I needed to write more about how the poems made me feel rather than all their technical details, and secondly, I might want to take a bit more time to proofread my future essays. In that moment he was Dumbledore—kind, intelligent, and insistent that I do my best.

That first tutorial failure caused me to change the way I write for the rest of my life. Reading out loud to my tutor made me hear all my mistakes. I had read over the essay in my mind before the tutorial, but reading in your mind just uses the same sensory input and neural pathways as writing. You end up just confirming that you wrote what you intended. Reading aloud brings in a whole new set of senses and muscles, and gives you the next best thing to an outside opinion of your work. You’ll notice immediately when you overuse certain words or when your complex-compound sentences cause you to stumble.

My writing got better. Near the end of the semester, Professor Wordsworth asked what I planned to do with my life. When I said I would be working on software, he told me that kids and their love of technology were going to ruin the world, and he offered to sponsor me as a graduate student in literature. That would have been another life.

I want to connect this concept of out-loud readability to audiobooks and podcasts. In Amanda Cupido’s story Getting Your Show Into Podcast Lists, Galen Beebe says she “isn’t a fan of hosts who sound like they’re reading. ‘If they have an audiobook cadence, for me… it’s lulling.’”

I love audiobooks as much as podcasts, but I understand what she’s saying. The combination of a bad reader and bad writing also lulls me to sleep. Writing that doesn’t work well when read aloud doesn’t work well as an audiobook.

And recently I’ve been listening to a very long, but riveting audiobook. Every sentence is music to my ears. I wonder if Galen would be surprised at its lack of “audiobook cadence?” The book is The Stand by Stephen King read by Grover Gardner. It’s about the aftermath of a global pandemic of a flu-like disease that kills off almost the entire human race. I read it in high school, and now I’m listening to it for the first time. When I press play I’m transported to the Boulder Free Zone, where the flu-surviving good guys regroup in a post-pandemic fictional world.

Here’s a passage that wants the out-loud treatment. Even small things like the “up” after “yellows” or the “once” after “herd of pigs” are for rhythm and not meaning. They make it sound good. Go ahead and read it out loud right now and tell me you don’t love saying, “He’s always outside. He came out of time…”

“He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines...the grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He's always outside. He came out of time...He has the name of a thousand demons. Jesus knocked him into a herd of pigs once. His name is Legion. He's afraid of us...He knows magic. He can call the wolves and live in the crows...He's the king of nowhere.” — Stephen King, The Stand

I know that Stephen King reads his work aloud. I’ve been in the room while he does it. In 1994 King went on a 10 city book tour on his Harley, and my hometown high school auditorium was one of his stops.

I remember the evening with surprising clarity. He stood at the front of the crowded auditorium and started riffing on our mascot. We were the Terrors, and he loved that. He wanted to know whether anyone had walked past a storm gutter on our campus very late at night, or whether anyone heard strange sounds in our locker-lined hallways when the building was empty.

I still remember him talking about the threat that big box book sellers were to independent book sellers and therefore the overall diversity of authors (prescient). I also remember him reading a 20 minute excerpt of Insomnia. I wonder if he reads his entire novels aloud as part of his own editing practice? He’s no stranger to listening. In an interview in The Atlantic, he says, “On long trips, we all listened to audiobooks. A good reader digging into a good book is wonderful. Musical.”

Be like Stephen King. Make your writing sound good when read aloud. If it’s not already something you’ve been doing, you won’t regret it.

Speaking of reading aloud and trying not to get into that dreaded “audiobook cadence,” we have a new episode of Timber—Stories for Podcasters. In it, I read a story by Sean Williams about the wrongful conviction podcast Undisclosed. Listen to it for a counterpoint on the often-recited advice that everything in podcasting should take a back seat to story. Undisclosed is one show where detail and content are king.

Finally, let me just leave you by musing about how The Stand proves that we’re living in a simulation. I read it in the early 90’s with a young and impressionable mind. As I was reading it, the matrix glitched in a scene that took place at the Holiday Inn in Grand Junction, Colo. King had written it in 1978 as scene from the future, but I was personally there at that very Holiday Inn the literal weekend it was supposed to have taken place. I was on a 7th grade band field trip—the one and only band camp in my life. Ok spooky, sure. Then 30 years later the matrix glitches again and we get our own flu-like pandemic. Our pandemic inspired me to listen to the book, and it sent a little chill down my spine when the characters visit the very same King Soopers in Boulder where the recent mass shooting just happened. Simulation for sure.


See you next week!

—Jon Christensen