As a student in college, I got to host my own radio program as a member of the school’s radio station. Part of this was going on the air to tell my audience what they just heard, what was coming up, and read off the station’s call letters and ID at varying points as required by the FCC.
Do not be fooled, however, because I sincerely dislike hearing my own voice.
This makes reading my writing aloud a very unenjoyable and tedious process.
So why do I make myself endure it?
Reading your work aloud is one of the simplest ways to catch mistakes spell checkers can miss.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore than that.” rather than “I don’t want to talk about it any more than that.”
“You’ve gone to far this time.” rather than “You’ve gone too far this time.”
“Its something to be discussed.” rather than “It’s something to be discussed.”
Reading your work aloud makes you pay attention to every single word instead of skimming past it in a brief overview.
As I mentioned in my recent post about how I use lists while editing scene descriptions, the first draft of any project is often skeletal. I’d estimate about 85% of it is dialogue while the rest is narration.
I’ve taken to reading the dialogue, especially longer passages, out loud. This helps me to figure out where pauses occur naturally, meaning I might add in an action beat or dialogue tag or just slow the line down with an ellipsis. Additionally, taking on the role of my characters and speaking their lines helps to establish their tone. I’ll make note of where I start to speak faster or softer and work those details into the overall scene.
I’ll occasionally do these readings in front of a mirror when I’m trying to nail down things like facial expressions, or in an open space with a closed door so I can test out a characters’ movements like pacing as they speak.
There are times where a certain passage will look great on paper. However, when read aloud, it may not sound as pleasing to the ears as it appears to the eyes.
In this round of editing the first of my WIPs, I’ve been focused on correcting the diction throughout all forty-six chapters. By this, I mean I’m paying more attention to the sound of the story. In previous drafts, my sentences were often clunky and didn’t flow together.
This got me thinking about a scene from one of my favorite movies as a child, In Search of Dr. Seuss. The film is a documentary geared for younger audiences about the writer’s life, featuring a few familiar faces like The Cat in the Hat as a reporter named Kathy sets out to get the scoop on Seuss.
There’s a segment focused on Seuss’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. At this point, Kathy has met Ad Man and Ad Woman and has learned about Seuss’s beginnings in advertising before giving a history of his shift to writing children’s books. The kooky pair explains how he came up with the idea aboard a ship in 1936 and how the rhythm of the engines inspired the lines repeated throughout:
“And that is a story that no one can beat
And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street”
To demonstrate this, Ad Man and Ad Woman start a chant to the same beat.
“Da Da Da Da DaDa Da DaDa Da Da
Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da DaDaDa Da
Da Da Da Da DaDa Da DaDa Da Da
Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da DaDaDa Da”
I haven’t seen this film in years and I can still hear the refrain.
While this repetition is often used in children’s books, it’s something to be avoided in adult fiction. The sentence structure should vary in length as well as rhythm.
If I can hear Ad Man and Ad Woman turning what I’ve written into a chant, that’s a sign I need to go back and make some changes.
Also, reading your writing out loud can prevent sentences that get muddled and twisted then tumbling off the tongue when they should be rolling off it.
But what if you’re like me? What if you really, really, really dislike reading your work out loud? As important it can be, you just can’t bring yourself to do it.
Well, that’s when you make way for ducklings.
Rubber Ducklings, that is!
In the world of software engineering, a popular method for finding errors in their coding is by reading it aloud to a rubber duck.
That’s right. A rubber duck.
When dealing with complex programs, it’s possible to get lost in it. When you’re starting at the screen for a long period of time, it’s possible to get stuck, especially when you’re trying to fix something you can’t figure out.
That probably sounds familiar to my fellow writers. Starting at what we’ve written, knowing it needs adjustments, but not being able to figure out what that is.
That’s where the aforementioned rubber duck comes in!
Rubber Duck Debugging gets its name from The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas, which was first published in 1999.
It’s a simple idea. Programmers sit down with their rubber duck and read what they’ve written to the rubber duck. Doing this can help them discern what isn’t working–and fix it!
I personally don’t have any rubber ducks on hand, I do have a reading friend you may be acquainted with.
While in London, I bought this miniature bust of Jane Austen.
There is a list of writers I look to for guidance, and Miss Austen is certainly at the top. I write historical fiction set in her lifetime so asking her if I’m getting my worldbuilding right, even if the question goes out into a silent void, helps me to discern what research I have left to do from simple questions like “Was this dish one that would have been served at a dinner party back then?” to “Would my character really be allowed to get away with that in this circumstance or that one based on the politics?”
If I’m asking Jane, that means I’m unsure of myself and need to do more research to make sure I have the facts straight.
It may be a little strange reading your work to your literary inspiration or feel awkward, maybe even intimidating to have them staring at you, possibly looking down at you or rolling in their grave as you make mistake after mistake…
Of course, this Jane doesn’t answer my questions or chide me for my mistakes.
She’s made of plaster.
But there’s something inspiring in having her there on my desk with that knowing countenance of hers.
I know I’m never going to be an expert on the Regency Era, but second-guessing is the fastest way to correcting, and having someone to bounce ideas off of can make life a little simpler.
I also read to Salvador if I’m working near his aquarium; he’s the perfect betta reader, after all!
Sir Salvador Cadmium Enjolras Merlot Wickham
While these tricks are helpful to my editing process, I still dread the thought of reading my book to an actually-live audience. Let’s just say my writing hopefully sounds better as a result of the tips featured in this post, but you shouldn’t expect me to narrate any audiobooks!
Who (or what) is your audience if you read your writing aloud? Let me know in the comments below!