Most writers have learned the importance of reading their words aloud. It’s advice I heeded early on and am happy to pass along.
Writing works on myriad levels. On one level, it’s the mechanical delivery of a story, the typing of words according to rules. It’s fingers on keyboards, reams of paper, and editing drafts. Beneath the surface, writing is meaning-making through narrative, tapping out universal themes and archetypes that existed before man first etched his carvings into cave walls.
As an art form, writing has the ability to transport a reader into another world. We paint with words on the mind’s canvas, compose the music of language, stir smells, tastes, and tactile impressions. The goal is emotional immersion, being present in the experience.
I have an irksome sensitivity to the sounds of words and the rhythm of phrases and sentences. When I search for the right word, it’s not just the meaning I’m chasing. I’m looking for the right number of syllables, the sharpness or softness of the consonants. As I nestle a word into a sentence, I listen for the subtlety of alliteration, a rhythm in the flow of the words that form phrases, phrases into paragraphs.
A story has a natural cadence that arises from sentence structure, word choice, and the balance of narrative, dialog, and exposition. By reading our stories aloud, we’re able to experience that cadence the way our readers do. As part of an editing process, hearing the sounds of our words polishes our work in multiple ways… 16 of them, at least.
Why reading aloud helps us write:
- Our wondrous human brain expertly and unconsciously corrects and smooths over mistakes. Awesome, but it works against us when writing!
- On top of that, we are familiar with our work – we’ve written it, edited it, read it, and lived it. We no longer need to read each word to read the sentences.
- Reading aloud forces our brains to focus. The goal is to slow down, read each word, and hear the writing “fresh.”
Reading aloud is one of the most powerful proofreading techniques around, and reading from a printed copy is even better. It further tricks the brain by changing up the visual (as well as providing room for notes).
So what are all these amazing benefits?
1) Typos, missing and misplaced words: Since our brains automatically correct our mistakes, these small errors can be hard to see. Note that if you find yourself verbally stumbling or reading a sentence twice, there is probably something tripping you up.
2) Punctuation: Like typos, these errors are easier to catch (especially if you read a printed copy).
3) Repeat words: (Example) The drizzle descended with the clouds. They waited inside the shelter for the drizzle to cease.
4) Repeat gestures: Everyone’s nodding, smiling, or raising an eyebrow.
5) Repeated rhythms in sentence structure: (Example) Biting her nails, she strode to the window. Glancing outside, she saw the carriage approach.
6) Starting sentences the same way: (Example) He fell asleep to the music. He dreamed of her swollen face and the blood in her hair. He reached for her wrist, and he felt no pulse.
7) Stacked prepositional phrases: (Example) He stood in the garage under the fan by the car in his underwear.
8) Repeated information: Telling the reader twice that the character shut the door or was surprised by the phone call.
9) Information you need to reorder: The character reacts to the gunshot before the reader hears it. (Much better the other way around.)
10) Missing information: The character trips over the cat in the bedroom. Fine, except the reader just saw him eating ice cream on the living room couch. When did he go to the bedroom?
11) Overly long and run-on sentences: Look for sentences that are difficult to read in a single breath or that lose their coherence. (Example) Sam galloped to the steps, leaped three at a time, and landed on the mat, but nothing prepared him for the ice that had formed unexpectedly overnight despite the forecast for fair weather, and he fell flat on his back.
12) Inconsistencies: A character wears a green shirt, and a few pages later, the shirt is blue. Or you’ve indicated that the character can’t see because it’s pitch dark, yet you’ve described the room.
13) Dialog: People generally talk with a natural rhythm of sounds and pauses (or not for some characters). When read aloud, stilted language will sound unnatural and tongue twisters will interrupt the flow. Anything that requires a pause for a second read is worth a revision.
14) Transitions: Transitions from one topic or scene to another may happen too abruptly and need smoothing out.
15) Pacing: Reading aloud is particularly helpful in identifying sequences that are racing by too quickly, slogging along, or wallowing in backstory.
16) Tone: Does the tone sound right? Too formal or casual? A book has an overall tone as does each scene and character.
Reading your work aloud doesn’t mean skipping another very important step: listening to your computer read your book to you!
Aside from hiring an editor, this is the best way to “hear” mistakes since a computer will (boringly) read every word exactly as written.
Do you read your work? Has it helped?
Share your tips and insights.