Back in the old days, when cassette tapes were still in circulation, I read books out loud, into a recorder. I wasn’t writing at the time, but I was working in a department that turned printed textbooks into audio books for people with impaired vision.
Once a week, I would scurry down a flight of marble steps into the basement of my office building and seal myself in a sound proof room. I’d crack open the book at hand — sometimes social work, occasionally a classic, once in a while (the dreaded) Chemistry. I’d pop in the cassette tape, clear my throat, and press record.
I spoke the words of welfare policy and research using my best authoritative tone. I invoked the spirit of my days on stage in High School Theater when I came across a monologue in literature. I did my best to breathe life into the periodic table.
“Who is the owner of that voice?” I imagined the students would say. “I’ve never heard Chemistry sound so sweet.” Of course, once my ego died down, I realized that saying “the atomic mass of hydrochloric acid” probably evoked the same level of excitement if spoken with passion versus a subtle, scholastic drone. In fact, most of the students were likely fast-forwarding to chapter summaries and skipping over my thrilling read.
These days, transferring books to audio happens inside the inner workings of computers and in a fraction of the time. But, I still love to read out loud. It serves a different purpose, though, one that applies to my life as a writer. There are three reasons – at least – why reading stories and essays aloud should be a part of every writer’s process:
1. You see the work through the eyes of an editor. Anne, in her post, “Read It Out Loud” (on About Freelance Writing), says this:
Awkward sentence structure and poor word choice…show up. Consistency, or the lack of it become apparent….
Nowadays, one area I pay close attention to in my work is dialogue; I listen for unrealistic speech or the strength in a character’s voice. Once, I wrote dialogue for a character from Mexico. I tried to incorporate a strong Spanish accent, and, in doing so, managed to make the character sound like an idiot. Or, at least that’s how I felt reading the words out loud. I decided reported speech might be a better choice.
2. Reading your work out loud helps you capture your voice. This didn’t matter so much when I was reading someone else’s research into a cassette recorder, but it’s especially helpful when I write blog posts today. Andrew Rosen, in “4 Reasons to Read Your Blog Aloud,” explains how blog posts play out differently, as compared to stories or essays, in the reader-writer relationship:
A BLOG IS A CONVERSATION. If you write the way you talk you have a better shot of connecting with your audience – and keep them coming back for more.
Subheadings, white space, and hard returns play an important role in blogging. Reading posts out loud helps me decipher when those techniques enhance the post or inhibit the flow of it.
3. Reading out loud prepares you for that book tour you’ve been dreaming about. I got a little dramatic during my “books on tape” days, but there’s truth behind the fact that, as authors, we have to practice reading aloud. As James Chartrand says, in a post on Men with Pens:
…[S]ub-vocalization…is a natural brain process we use while we read. As we read, we imagine the sounds of words and ‘hear’ them in our minds. That’s pretty important, because sub-vocalization helps us understand more of what we’ve read and remember it longer…That means [readers will] grasp your razor-sharp message perfectly….
Chartrand is talking about how a reader processes the words on the page, but his point can be taken from the perspective of a listener as well. There’s a distinct difference in how I hear a story that’s read with feeling and with appropriate pausing, versus a story that’s poured-out-in-one-long-breath-with-barely-a-break-between-paragraphs-and-what-did-that-character-just-say? I miss big chunks when a story blows past my ears too fast; I also get distracted when a story is read too slow. I have to practice my pacing, so that when I am standing in front of an audience, I can trust they will hear the story the way I intend — as if the characters were standing in the room and the scene was playing out in front of them.
One final note, Mem Fox (author of Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild, one of my favorite children’s books) offers ten commandments for reading out loud, one of which says, “Read aloud with animation. Listen to your own voice and don’t be dull, or flat, or boring. Hang loose and be loud, have fun and laugh a lot.”
I think she’d be all for reading through the alkaline metals with pizzazz.
Do you read your stories out loud? How does it improve your writing?