Writing with Sound

I sense that there is a change happening in my writing, because there is a change in how I write. I used to write, like most people, silently. My eyes and fingers worked together to lay down words on the page.

When you compose with your eyes, you read over what you’ve written with your internal voice. You supply all of the missing elements of speech: tone, emphasis, pause, and all the other things that add texture and life to the words on the page.

When I used to write with my eyes, I would become so familiar with the way I read a piece of text in my head that I could not imagine it any other way. I never considered that those invisible auditory elements would not be immediately evident to any other reader. At least, not until I came back to a piece of writing a few days later, when I had forgotten the finer details, the shape and flow of each individual sentence. Then I would inevitably puzzle over a phrase or paragraph until I realized how I had meant it to be read. I found these pitfalls lurking in the writing of others, too—places where the emphasis or tone was important but not apparent, waiting like rocks in tall grass to trip up unsuspecting readers.

Now I write with VoiceOver. It is Apple’s main accessibility feature, which gives immediate audio feedback for every character, word and sentence that I write, and reads me paragraphs so I can remind myself of their flow and argument. It is a multi-sensory experience, since I still see the words appearing on my screen, sometimes zoomed in close enough to read them but most often not. I used to find the constant wash of letters and words distracting and intrusive, but in the few weeks since I’ve started writing this way exclusively, it has become natural and I feel adrift when it is turned off.

When VoiceOver reads every word, line, sentence, and paragraph, it supplies its own intonation, emphasis, and rhythm. Computer voices today are not the abrasive robot voices of the eighties and nineties. They are getting closer and closer to the sound of natural speech. No one would mistake them for human, but developers are focused on improving their realism and fluency in reading long passages. So the computer adds pauses, shifts its tone, and inflects words up or down based on how it interprets the context. All those choices I used to make in composing, usually without even thinking about it, are now made by the computer. The computer becomes a controlling voice in my writing, because if it reads something awkwardly, I often change the text.

Of course, I don’t always cede to the computer. Sometimes it is obviously wrong (like when it pronounces a homonym inappropriately, like “read” as red instead of reed) or its interpretation is clumsily rule-bound (like when it thinks “Mr.” is the end of a sentence). But if the computer’s reading is misleading, ambiguous, or simply awkward, I will often rewrite it. I just can’t bear to hear the voice stumble over the same passage dozens of times as I write and edit, so I alter it to accommodate the computer’s flow.

The big question is, how will this affect my writing? Will it become more stilted or robotic as I adapt to a computerized interpretation of natural language? I hope not. My hope is that the instant feedback will remind me to consider the auditory dimensions of language more carefully than I did before. VoiceOver, imperfect as it is, is an audience that is present and interactive at every stage of my writing process, letting me know what I’ve written and at least one way it can be read. If it makes a mistake, there’s a chance another reader would also have made that mistake. VoiceOver was developed by people, after all, and those people defined the interpretive choices it makes.

VoiceOver is changing my writing, but how remains to be seen. I guess I’ll just have to wait for you, my human readers, to let me know.


8 thoughts on “Writing with Sound

  1. It is great what computers can do, but our language is so complicated that your blog reminded me of the difficulties that those trying to learn our language have. You did a great job of explaining this and at this point there was no noticeable change in your style of writing.

    Thanks for sharing your walk through this process.

  2. It is great what computers can do, but our language is so complicated that your blog reminded me of the difficulties that those trying to learn our language have. You did a great job of explaining this and at this point there was no noticeable change in your style of writing.

    Thanks for sharing your walk through this process.

  3. Such an interesting transition to go from visual writing to auditory writing–I like to hear you talk about what you are noticing as you learn to maximize different senses and specialized technology.

  4. It is amazing what we take for granted. We draft it, read it, change it and assume that the person on the other end is reading our communication the way we want it read! What an eye opener and an opportunity to have a better insight as to how your writing might be perceived by others. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing❣

  5. My editing classes taught me that I should always read papers aloud, because it reveals where my writing isn’t natural or is confusing, and so helps me to see mistakes or places where I could be more clear. I think it will only make your writing better, stronger–it’s like you have a personal assistant to read back to you!

  6. Interesting observations. I will be further interested to see whether you get to a point that you prefer having the audio off as you type. Btw, did you learn to type in the first place without looking at the keys? It would be a fascinating thing to explore the writing styles of people who learned to type with and without looking at the keys.
    I learned to type when I was nine years old. The typing program that I used had audio prompts and attempted to control the person’s typing speed. I abandoned it fairly soon, both because the prompts were annoying and because the speed control was cumbersome (either too fast or too slow). Today, I find that having the audio feedback on slows me down, though I also write as if I hear someone reading to me. I have learned to ignore the audio output, though perhaps that is because I have been using synthetic speech since the days of robotic speech. If the current speech mispronounces or mis-intones something, I tune it out… I’m not good with Voiceover so am not sure how controllable it is… JAWS has some features that help in controlling fluidity. It is possible to yrll it to either pause at the ends of lines, sentences, or paragraphs. It does a generally good job of figuring out which is which.
    I think that you will also retain your knowledge of print and page layout and this will contribute positively to your writing. Don’t hesitate to use all of the knowledge and tools at your disposal, whether gained from your sighted years or your blind years.

    1. Great insights! I still make too many errors to type without audio feedback, but I think that the audio is actually making me a better typist. I usually outpace the letter-by-letter reading at this point, and I think I’m making fewer errors than I did when I was visual-only.
      I think there’s a lot of customizability in VoiceOver that I don’t know how to use yet, so it may be that I use it differently in the future.
      I like what you say about using all your tools. I am learning so much from going blind about writing and thinking. It is a rough transition for sure, but in the end I think it will make me a stronger writer and better thinker. It is one way among many of gaining broader experience and having my perspective forced open, and in the end isn’t that one of the things that makes for good scholarship?

  7. You are a very stylish writer. Not surprised you ponder on things like these.

    Just a side not here – the main topic I don’t have much to say about since I’m sighted.

    I only recently understood that my punctuation isn’t always enough to inform the reader on my intended intonation and pausation, exactly the way you describe here: reading an older text and being confused by specific sentences. (Quite shocking. I thought I had been so clever. Not so.) Your text is the first time I found a description of this phenomenom. In very formal written language it does not appear, I guess, since the starting point is written language not spoken. Normally when we write I suppose we do something inbetween. You got me thinking here.

    Possibly one effect of the period you’re working through (or were, when you wrote this) is a weeding out of these ambiguities since your written prose gets less based in your own inner voice, and more in the written language as such. Just guessing.

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