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Subvocalization: Do you talk while you write?

On Facebook recently, some of my relatives were discussing the process of subvocalization and whether or not they did it while reading and/or writing. Subvocalization is the act of mentally translating written words into speech words (hearing the words inside your head). This process can involve actually engaging one's vocal muscles while reading (but not actually speaking the words out loud).

Apparently eliminating (or reducing) subvocalization is the secret to speed reading, as it cuts down on the cognitive resources utilized. The debate then seems to be whether or not reading quickly (and in turn, not subvocalizing) also reduces comprehension. I suppose I never really thought about it, but this makes sense. If I'm really wrapped up in a novel and the prose isn't particularly dense, I'm a very fast reader. However, if I'm reading something academic that requires a great deal of critical analysis, my reading rate slows dramatically and I am definitely aware of using subvocalization as an aid in helping me process information. Sometimes I will literally read the words out loud if I'm not sure I'm understanding something.

But how does this impact writing? As I'm typing up this blog post, I'm pretty aware of my subvocalizing. I'm saying the words to myself while writing. With fiction, I think it's also a tool I use subconsciously in order to hone a character's voice and to intuitively find the right rhythm and beats and nuances.

However, this is where I admit that I am not a very fast writer, and I wonder if there are people who can turn off their subvocalization while writing? Does this help them write faster? Maybe in the drafting stage? 

I asked a couple YA Highwayers about their experiences and awareness of subvocalization, and these are their responses:

Kirsten H: "Yes, I do this often -- almost always when I'm enjoying a book, particularly a book with evocative language. I know it slows down my pace, though, and sometimes I have to consciously push myself not to. It's also a major part of writing for me: I'm always aware of the cadence and mouthfeel of my sentences, even if I never speak them aloud (or even mouth them), and I think that's a big part of it."

Kristin H: "I do that, too. Particularly when I reread sentences that have a particular, pleasing rhythm, I think. And I also do it while writing...But I think I use it even more in the revising stages when I'm really scrutinizing line-level writing for things like cadence and rhythm, alliteration, natural dialogue and so forth." 

What about you? Are you aware of any subvocalization while reading or writing? How do you think it impacts your process?

Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. Yes! I think I do this a lot during the first draft of writing, which is why it can feel like such agony. I actually aspire to turn it off so that I can throw down a quick and dirty rough draft and then fill it out more in editing. I just haven't yet managed to silence that little voice.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. Yes, that's how I feel about first drafts, too. I can't turn the voice off. Glad to know I'm not the only one!

  2. Yeah, I think I do this too. Though after a while, it just feels like the normal pace of reading or writing. :)


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