Monday, August 9, 2010

Writing Tips: Writing Out Loud

I discovered the value of reading my creative fiction out loud only last year, when I gave an impromptu reading of some space monkey flash fiction (don’t ask) at a Relief Magazine event hosting author Michael Snyder. Listening to Mike read his stuff for 30 minutes was fun. Reading my own for three was terrifying and instructive. What I thought was a bullet-proof, zippy little piece, sounded leaden and clunky as I read it out loud. However, the punchline, which I thought was merely ok when I wrote it, provoked a big laugh. I quickly learned what didn’t work and what worked very well in that 500 word flash piece.

Science Fiction author Juliette Wade recently wrote about reading your work out loud as a quick, effective editing trick, a tool to improve your writing.
The first thing that reading aloud can do is give you some distance on what you've written. Sometimes you spend so much time going over and over the words on the screen that you know them by heart, and you stop being able to see problems that might be there. Reading aloud is one way to push that text away, and put it into a context where you can be more aware of what's actually there, rather than what you think/know is there from the million times you've run your eyes over it. Printing out the story and looking at it that way can have a similar effect, but does require more paper and ink!

The second thing that reading aloud can do for you is give you a sense of the rhythmic feel of your prose. As you go through, awkward spots will give you pause, or even cause your tongue to stumble. When this happens, it's a good idea to change what you've written - because if it makes you pause or stumble, chances are your readers will have the same problem.

Juliette goes on to write about how reading can be useful when designing character voices. I recommend reading the rest of her article about that process.

Writing, for me, is primarily an internal endeavor. I read inside my head, I think inside my head, and I write inside my head, a closed internal loop. I am most content when I escape to someplace where I can sit in front of a computer or laptop, put on some headphones, and be alone with the privacy and complexity of my half-formed thoughts. It is there that I begin to make sense of things and exert my will to wrest invention and beauty out of chaos.

But this very aspect of writing is both constructive and false because, by its very definition, it is two dimensional. Those insights that seemed so scintillating when crafted in my head crash to the ground with a dull thud when spoken out loud.

How often have you wrestled with a writing problem inside your head, spoken the problem out loud to a friend, and discovered the answer while speaking the question? It happens to me all the time. This is why I now tend to be pretty quick about bouncing ideas off people verbally whenever I can. The quick spoken sounding board works very well for me, both in my day job as a technical writer and in my creative writing after-hours.

Don’t wait for an audience. Make reading your work out loud a part of your writing toolkit for a quick, effective metric on your work-in-progress.
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  1. Btw, yes, this post was late. Way, way late. The fault was entirely mine. I knew my writing last night was going too well - I was supposed to be working on something else entirely! Oy.

    Anyway, I hope y'all enjoy this post, in all its transgressive tardiness.

  2. The post was worth waiting for, Johne. Thanks!

    I learned the value of reading my work outside when Mom could no longer read for herself. I was able to find all the clunky phrases, repetitions, and major gaffs. Reading out loud is a great proofreading tool.

  3. Great post. I entirely agree... although I'm admittedly lax about reading my own stuff out loud. I go hoarse much too quickly. I've started to rely on the built-in text-to-speech feature in Adobe Reader. Having my work read back to me by a mechanical voice doesn't do a whole lot for conveying the rhythm of a piece, but it certainly has its own benefits.

  4. I've resisted, but darn it- you've convinced me! I'm going to do it! :)


  5. I hate reading out loud, even if—or maybe especially if—it's my own stuff. I do agree there are benefits to it though.

  6. This is one thing that our critique group does that I love. (Now... I hated it at my first meeting :)) Each month when we get together we have one group member read another group member's submission aloud. The first time someone read mine aloud it was SO nerve wracking. But now that I'm used to it and ready - it REALLY is helpful. Just another plug for critique groups! If you aren't in one, join one. You won't be sorry!

  7. Hey Johne!

    I ventured over from your Facebook post....

    Reading your work aloud is a principle I totally agree with. I read my own work aloud, and I also have my wife or daughter read it aloud to me. I got a lot of insight from both approaches, and wanted to do it more. However, I didn't want to drive my family crazy having them read multiple drafts out loud. So, I sought for a way for the computer to read to me. It's works great! The reading rhythm can be odd, and that makes sentence structure really stick out sometimes. Here's what I learned (part 1 or 3):

  8. Hey, Guerry! Great to see you over here!

    The TextEdit thing is cool. I have a MacBook Pro. Also the Stanza workaround. Have you tried syncing that to Stanza on an iPhone and listening to it read your story like a podcast?

    Great, indepth posts, Guerry. Thanks for the links.

  9. Yes, I've done the iPhone thing. Basically just add the MP3 to your library. I also added it to a playlist to be easy to find. Works pretty well. There may be more direct route from Stanza to iTunes and/or iPhone, but I don't know it.

    A couple of tiny annoyances: 1) when you open the .rtf in Stanza, if you don't go to Book Info (command-i) and set the title and author, the MP3 will state "unknown" for each. Also, whenever the reader hits italics it pauses before saying the word as the way to emphasize it. The positive there is that it really makes you question if you needed italics there....

    Glad you liked them. Hope you find it useful! I love reading and writing about fiction writing almost as much as writing fiction itself...which doesn't help my productivity much. :-)

  10. I'm going to try it out tonight!