Read. It. Aloud.

Confident (overconfident, perhaps) in my narrative skills, until recently I had never followed a piece of advice that I’ve heard and sometimes given. To read your manuscript aloud. I have now learned the value of this simple technique. I’ve also seen the suggestion to listen to your writing with text-to-speech software, but I haven’t tried that, and don’t know that you’d get the same benefits as reading it aloud yourself. 

Now, I’ve advised writers to read aloud as a way to sense whether or not the narrative they’ve crafted is doing the job of being compelling or not. I came to this because many of the submissions I get on my blog, Flogging the Quill, fall considerably short of that mark because they open with backstory, or you-need-to-know-this-to-understand info dump. 

My thought there was that if you’re reading your manuscript aloud and your mind starts to wander, that’s a sure sign of a narrative that has bogged down and is taking the reader nowhere. This happens to me when I’m reading such a manuscript silently, but I can see how a writer might not be able to do that with his own work, and it made sense that reading it aloud could help them become aware of pacelessness. 

I think it’s a difference in how our minds process 

In reading words and sentences to pronounce them out loud, we use additional parts of our brains, and I think that’s what makes us more aware of the actual content of the sentences than when we’re reading silently. Necessarily, there’s a tighter focus, too, and less tendency to skim and skip. 

As I mentioned, I hadn’t been in the practice of reading my stuff aloud. I now regret that I haven’t been. This epiphany is due to creating podcasts for my latest novel, The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles. The manuscript was copyedited by a reasonably sharp-eyed colleague who performs that function for the university where I work. It was read by my sharp-eyed English-major wife. And I read it again and again and again before publishing it, both in manuscript form and in book form. 

Yet reading it aloud has uncovered at least a dozen typos and other linguistic mistakes. Argh! Despite all the care and attention, there they embarrassingly were. I’m almost finished with the podcasts, and will load a revised version into the POD supplier, Lightning Source, when I’m done. Because it costs $40 for me to make that change, current copies purchased will have embarrassing glitches in them. (Maybe they’ll become collector’s items—get your copy today!) 

On the other hand, there’s a good chance the errors will go unnoticed. After all, they escaped the beady-eyed gazes of people who were on the alert for goofs. I also think that the nature of the narrative is a factor. There’s plenty of humor to distract you, not to mention seeing the world through a cat’s eyes, and fast-paced action that becomes quite involving. Readers (not all, it does have its critics) speed through the story, constantly racing forward to find out what’s going to happen next in the madcap tale. I like to think that, in a way, quality of storytelling is the culprit. 

The goofs have primarily been just that—goofs. A typo now and then. A word out of place. Once a description that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. 

Here’s an interesting sidebar: I use contractions in the narrative quite a lot, partly because it’s in first person. However, in reading it aloud for the podcast recording, I found that the rhythm and sense of the words play better when the contractions revert to whole words. I’m not going to change them in the typeset narrative, but, when I record, I find myself de-contracting the contractions more and more. 

So now I’m reading another one aloud 

I’m still working on getting my We the Enemy story ready for publication (I just rewrote the opening and some key parts thanks to the input of a beta reader–thanks, Jami), and now I’ve embarked on reading it aloud, though not for recording. 

And guess what—I’m finding a word missing now and then, some hidden echoes, and other glitches that have not been seen by the same crew that missed those in vampire kitty-cat—the wife, the editor, and myself. Just this morning I found a line that had a character finishing a beer—only I’d cut the earlier reference to him having one! Argh! 

(I’m still interested in finding beta readers for this book. Here’s ad copy I’ve composed about We the Enemy: “Madmen, madchildren, and criminals kill us with terrifying firepower. Revolving-door law spits felons back onto streets uncaught, unreformed. But maybe there are ways to change. A gripping ride in a unique speculative thriller that sparks thought.” If you’d like to give it a read and give me feedback, email me at ray at ftqpress dot com.) 

On the positive side, I’m still confident of my narrative ability. I’m finding that the prose reads well and is involving, and doesn’t need much in the way of revision—but I am also seeing ways to clarify now and then, which means a better read. This reinforces the lesson I learned with the kitty-cat novel—storytelling and writing craft abilities aside, my ability to get it right is only 98 percent accurate. Read it aloud. A valuable and humbling lesson learned. I’m going to do it with the other WIP that’s been “finished” for years, Finding Magic. 

If you think this advice doesn’t mean you . . .

I ignored this advice for years, to my detriment. So why not do this? Take a couple of chapters of something you feel is polished and tight, right now, and read them aloud. Then post the result in comments for this post. If you don’t discover anything, excellent. But it you do . . .

For what it’s worth.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    I can’t edit without reading my manuscript out loud. When I read it out loud I feel the flow of the language. It gets the story out of my head and gives the words a life of their own.

    I probably drive my husband nuts when I get in a focused revision mode because I read, revise, read again, revise, and on and on. But the flow of the language has to be just right or it won’t work.

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  2. says

    We find this technique pretty invaluable in my writing group.

    Alternately, reading it aloud and finding that (at last!) no one stumbles, no one wanders, etc. can be very, VERY encouraging!
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..First thing’s first =-.

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  3. says

    Great insight from a veteran writer. I’ve never taken that advice either. I am a non-fiction writer, but I think this could work just as well for any kind of writing.

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  4. says

    Ray,
    Excellent advice. Author Alton Gansky taught me this early in my journey on the road to writing. At that time I was frustrated that he took the time to read aloud a bit of material on which I wanted his advice. Later, I learned how necessary this step is. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. says

    I was talking to another writer recently who uses a device (I forget what it’s called) that’s basically a tube shaped like a hollowed-out telephone handset. You whisper into it, and it magnifies the sound straight to your ear.

    Also, bonus, if you use it in public, people will think you’re certifiably insane.
    .-= Laurence MacNaughton, Author´s last blog ..Brand New Look — But No Surveys?! =-.

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  6. says

    Hi Ray:

    Great advice and one I always use as it’s a hard lesson to swallow once that book is in print. Because proofreading is done by people, not by a computer, one must take into consideration room for human error. Just take comfort in knowing that I find the odd typo or missing word in even bestselling novels written by well-known authors that are printed by some of the biggest publishing houses.
    This is not a problem restricted to those who self-publish!
    Having attended writing workshops hosted by the great Terry Brooks, he said that people will forgive the author if the story is wonderful even if there’s the odd typos, punctation error, etc.
    What they will not forgive is a ‘perfect’ book, but the story falls flat.
    Thanks for a great post.

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  7. says

    I’ve been trying this technique for the first time, and one thing I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t edit this way too early in your revision process. As I’ve been trying to read out loud, I’ve just been frustrating myself because it isn’t smooth enough. Reading out loud can help you find the places that need to be smoothed out – but if the whole thing is still in that condition, perhaps it’s best to wait until you’ve eliminated some of those extra words.

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  8. says

    The bnefeit of txet to sepceh stfoware over redaing aolud is taht we have the bad hbait of auto-correcting mitskaes before we even realize they’re there…

    Plus playing it back to music can make for some highly entertaining reading :-)
    .-= S0BeUrself´s last blog ..Plot First, Characters Second? =-.

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  9. says

    Ray, I’m completely with you on the importance of reading aloud as a revising tool. But more than that, reading aloud has become a crucial performance skill that every writer should have. Given the bookstore/bookgroup reading circuit that’s so vital to the marketing success of any book, a writer who can really create an enjoyable listening experience wins more points than one who drones on and on.
    How committed am I to reading aloud? So committed that I founded The Drum, a literary magazine online that publishes new fiction and essays only as audio files.

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  10. says

    Great post – I have (much to the annoyance of anyone within earshot) always tried to read my writing aloud while editing. Even my essays and such for school. And when I wrote ad copy at a newspaper, my co-workers got used to my constant mumbling.

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  11. says

    I absolutely agree with this! My latest short story was read aloud four times and changed each time. It is the perfect way to really find where things don’t flow, and to also stay very connected to your work.
    .-= Kristy Philbrick ´s last blog ..Unleash Your Inner Muse! =-.

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  12. CS says

    I totally agree with reading aloud to check for errors and flow. After reading a few chapters out loud, I found I needed to change a character’s name. In my head the name flowed along with everything else. Out loud, I could hear how the name sounded too much like another word–one potentially offensive and embarrassing. All fixed now. But I wouldn’t have caught it if I hadn’t read those chapters out loud.

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  13. says

    This is one of my favorite strategies. You hear so much more than you see when it comes to assessing the flow of language on the page.

    Thanks for this great reminder, Ray!

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  14. says

    Great post, and excellent advice. I discovered the benefits of reading everything aloud when I first began to do readings and kept finding things I wanted to change as the words emerged from my mouth. That was a frustrating experience! I also find reading aloud is the BEST way of catching unintended word repetitions… the sound of words lingers longer in the memory that the sight of them on a page.

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  15. says

    I need to get over my stupid phobia about hearing my own voice, which I think sounds like a baby. Everyone who reads outloud says they benefit from it. You can hear the music this way.

    Great post, Ray!

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  16. says

    I used to do a lot of public reading and speaking competitions in high school. When I started critiquing my friends novels and then my own, reading out loud was the most natural and by far the most helpful thing for me to do when revising. Apparently I’m pretty interesting to listen to because my natural habits make me read – with emotion – even on first passes. I very much suggest reading things out loud!
    Cid´s last blog post ..Tiaras and Boas

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  17. says

    Even before I knew I was supposed to, I read my work aloud. It’s the only way to feel the cadence and structure. Plus – I catch more typing errors reading aloud.

    Unlike Cid, when I’m reading aloud (to myself) I keep the reading “flat”. For me, it’s a better way to hear sentence structure and rhythm.

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  18. Terry Edwards says

    With just a bit of humor, when I read aloud, I feel like the little boy in the classroom corner who just had his knuckles rapped by Mrs. Geitline for not being able to read assignments quietly. “Reading should be in your head, not your mouth. You will never amount to anything if your brain cannot control your mouth!” she would yell at me.

    Much later in my mid-life, a college teacher of mine was reading aloud various responses to book-report test we had taken the week before. As she read the last response to one of her test questions, the answer given by the student literally summed up the entire essence of the book in wonderfully crafted prose that left the whole class speechless. The silence was broken by a voice rarely heard in any classroom, my own. “That was really beautiful,” I remember saying, looking about the room full of much younger students, trying to imagine who had written it. When I asked who had written the paragraph, the teacher shrugged her shoulder, flipped the test pages back to its coversheet, look straight at me and said, “You did.”

    I felt like a conceded old fool trying to be a show-off. While hastily trying to answer all the test questions in the allotted time, I vaguely remembered what I had written, but the experience seared into my mind the power a voice has when married to well crafted words. Reading my work aloud is good advice, but I still find it hard to get past the phobia of Mrs. Geitline’s well intended advice. May she rest in peace.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Read. It. Aloud. How do you make sure your words (which look fabulous on the page, thank you very much) actually work? Try reading them aloud, especially if you are working on your dialogue. Perhaps I will use this tip with my little one after he is born. He won’t understand the words yet, I’ll be stimulating his mind by reading to him, and I’ll get some possible revisions for my WIP. […]

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