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That voice you hear in your head

When I was a teaching assistant in Syracuse’s English department, a couple of students who handed in what amounted to duplicate essays in my composition course were amazed at being caught. And this, I found out from colleagues, was a common reaction.

It’s possible that the undergraduates assumed that we simply didn’t read their work, a suspicion that may have been justified in certain instances. But I think that there is a deeper reason: that people who are not inveterate readers do not perceive the written text as we bookworms do. That is, they do not hear echoes from one text to the next. They do not imagine that a passage in one text will strike the reader as being similar to a different text previously read.

It is not that they are dim. Well, not all of them. They recognize allusions and echoes in music and movies. But as readers they are deaf.

There is a passage bearing on this in Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings:

Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, that the feeling the resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers—to read as listeners—and with all writers, to write as listeners. …

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.

Neither do I know whether any research bears out this sense of the reader developing an inward voice located in the printed text, but I think that readers who enjoy reading — not those who find it laborious and unrewarding — replicate mentally and silently the rhythms of speech embodied in prose. This is analogous to the ability of a musician to look at a printed score and hear the music, mentally and silently.

Thirty years ago in Syracuse — this is a concluding digression — I was the host of a weekly spoken-word show on WONO-FM. It aired on Sunday nights at 11:30 or so and had an audience conservatively estimated in the dozens. On that program I once read Eudora Welty’s hilarious short story, “Why I live at the P.O.,” a textbook illustration of the unreliable narrator. I was startled and pleased, some years later, to hear a recording of Ms. Welty’s reading of that story. She read it with the same cadences and emphases that I had. We had heard the same voice in the text.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:18 PM | | Comments (4)


I want to shout "Hear, hear!" at the top of my lungs. In my editing work I keep encountering reports in which passages are copied whole from the body of the text into the executive summary or the conclusion -- sometimes they appear in all three places. I just cannot imagine a reader who would not be disconcerted, if not irritated beyond measure.

Plainly they exist. In my efforts to encourage people to punctuate by ear rather than by rule, I have discovered that many, many people simply don't make a connection between marks on the page and sounds. I've even heard it argued that doing so seriously impairs the speed and "efficiency" of your reading.

Wow. I thought I was the only one. No, that's not true, my dad used to hear voices while he read - I know this because when he read to us, the characters had discernably different voices of their own and my son reads to his kids in voice. And, as I think of it, my dad's mother heard the voice, too.

While I would like, for the sake of kids - not to mention society! - everywhere - for this to be a learned trait, I wonder if it's not genetic. If nothing else, involvement in the text might be inherited.

I was astonished to learn, many years ago, that some people don't "hear" the words they read. I think it's just that people's minds work differently; some are more "visual," others more leaning toward sounds. I can hardly "picture" anything in my mind, even with effort; some people can spell words backward by visualizing them and then "reading" them backward. I suppose most people are somewhere in between.

Richard Feynman wrote somewhere about people trying to learn to estimate the passage of time accurately. Some of them did it by "counting" in their minds (and so could not do it well and talk at the same time), others pictured a moving tape with times written on it.

Does anybody study this in a serious way? Psychologists, perhaps?

Yeah, I hear that voice when I write ...

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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