Do You Really Read Your Writing Aloud?

When I was a kid, my family went on frequent road trips, and our favorite way to pass the time was listening to random audiobooks we picked up at gas stations. They don't come on cassettes anymore (though I still call them "books on tape"), but audiobooks are more available than ever. Audible and other subscription services make it easy to absorb a new book a piece at a time--on your daily commute, or while you're waiting on an oil change.

There's something different about fiction when it's read aloud. A dull reader will kill even the liveliest story, but in the hands of a deft voice actor the music of words is infectious. It was the venerable David Dukes who first introduced me to Isaac Asimov, and if it weren't for his vivid reading of the Foundation books, I might not be the rabid Asimov fan I am today.

You've probably heard that it's good to read your own writing aloud, and my experience with audiobooks leads me to agree. Reading fiction aloud engages your other senses, and this means more of your brain is working on the story. It helps you enjoy a story more, and understand it better.

Still, it feels kind of silly, doesn't it? Do you really have to do it?

I wouldn't say you have to read every word of your manuscript aloud, but I definitely advise reading any tricky passages aloud. Any time you're not 100% satisfied with a sentence or any time you get stuck revising the same passage over and over, try reading it aloud. Yes, actually do it, and do it loud enough to hear. As Browne and King said, "The eye can be fooled, but the ear knows."

One of the biggest obstacles in revision is separating what you meant from what you said. As the author, you always know the intentions behind your words, so it's easy for you to bridge small gaps in clarity without even realizing you're doing it. If you read your writing while it's still fresh, you probably don't even see half of the rough spots, because your brain doesn't even really see the words themselves. You just perceive their meaning.

Time is the best way to distance yourself from your writing, but reading aloud is also highly effective. It forces you to see the words themselves, and to approach them in a different way. It also helps develop your voice--your artistic voice, not your literal voice--by allowing you to hear it when it sings to you.

Voice is a nebulous thing, and it's tough to have a meaningful discussion about it. But reading aloud helps you hear consonance, assonance, and alliteration, which will help you develop the music in your words. Listen for music, but don't try to put it in your writing. Let your voice develop naturally, or it will sound forced. If your writing is a cake, voice is the icing. You need to bake the cake first, and you need to make it delicious on its own merits, or the cake will suck, no matter how sweet and pretty the icing is. Still, reading your work aloud is a habit that will gradually foster whatever music is inside you.

On a more down-to-earth note, reading aloud helps you catch errors that the eye reads right past. A few things to be on the lookout for:

  • Clumsy Phrases: Any time you stumble over your words, that's an opportunity to improve. You may not always be able to express an idea more fluidly, but it's worth a try. Ideally, you want words that never have to be read twice.
  • Cumbersome Words: Any time you run across a word that's hard to pronounce, look for a more common synonym. Reading aloud is a great way to catch yourself substituting grad-school words for simple ones that everyone can understand.
  • Vagueness: If you read a long sentence, and halfway through you've forgotten what you're talking about, that's an opportunity. Even if you like run-ons (many successful authors do), even if the sentence isn't technically a run-on, sometimes it's good to break things up. Vague pronouns are a big problem for me personally. Sometimes it's hard to keep all your him's and it's straight. (More on pronouns next week!) Any time you have to backtrack to remember who "he" or "she" is, try to rephrase with fewer pronouns.
  • Character Voice: You want all your characters to sound different. Ideally, they'll each be so unique that a reader can identify the speaker from the dialogue alone (this doesn't mean you get to skip speaker attributions though!). Reading aloud is a great opportunity to hear the differences in cadence, word choice, and even dialect. If you can, and if you're not too embarrassed, go ahead and "do" the voices; try your villains in a cultured, Severus Snape accent, or speak your hunky hero's lines in an Oklahoma drawl. Even if you can't "do" voices, try to play the parts when you can. Speak the lines with emotion, and hear if your words actually sync up with those emotions, or if they sound horribly out of place.
  • Author Voice: Again, author voice isn't something you can force, but you can listen for it and identify it. Any time a particular passage stands out to you, make a note of it. Do the same any time something just sounds ugly to you. Don't try to analyze it, or you'll lose the flavor of the experience. Just try to develop an ear for your own voice, and eventually you'll learn to coax it out at will.

Reading aloud is awkward and embarrassing, even if you're alone, but it can tune you in to many subtleties of your writing. Maybe don't do it at Starbucks, and maybe don't feel obliged to do it with every scrap of writing you ever put out there, but keep it in your writer's toolbox. Sometimes reading aloud provides the simple solutions that evade every other method.