Lessons from an Old Panasonic: Read out loud.

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?

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28 responses to “Lessons from an Old Panasonic: Read out loud.

  1. Lovely post, and yes, I read everything out loud. I read my blog posts before I publish them and I just read my latest novel, from cover to cover, to my husband. One of the things to suffer in endless rounds of edits is the rhythm and aural coherence. When I read aloud I can catch the wave that keeps the story rolling along.

  2. Yes! Reading aloud can smooth out your writing by helping you catch the areas that don’t flow. It’s a must.

    • Chrisy, I see from your blog that your a Mother Writer, too. Are you a late night whisperer-the-work-out-loud like me? Sometimes, I have to head to the basement so as not to disturb… 🙂

  3. I couldn’t agree more. I love reading out loud in general. My work, the work of others, stereo instructions…okay, maybe not stereo instructions. But you’re absolutely right. Reading out loud is a MUST for all writers.

    Great post, Christ!

    Cathleen xx

  4. Vaughn Roycroft

    I do this sporadically. Thanks, Christi, for reminding me I should do it more often. Like dirtywhitecandy, I read much of my first MS aloud to my spouse. I found myself editing on the fly, and would mark the spots. It’s amazing what the subconcious brain can do to self-correct, almost instantaneously. Certainly somthing I should be utilizing, as my concious self can be so dull. 😉

  5. Great post, and great detailed overview of why I’m a huge fan of reading out loud. You articulated it perfectly. 😀

    When I’m pressed for time and don’t read my blog posts or my flash fiction out loud, that’s when I’m likely to find clunky sentences, and of course, typos!

    Reading aloud also helps me identify where the story is dragging and, as you said, it’s a tremendous help for dialog. I tend to write very long, parenthetical sentences and reading aloud helps me catch those when they run too far out of control. (It’s also partially my voice, so I don’t hack all of them 😉 )

    • Cathryn, You make a great point too, that we are able to catch – not just flow – but moments when a story slows down too much. On blog posts, I can’t help myself when it comes to reading them out loud. Last night, I was up late working on this one and must have read through it fifty times. Sometimes, it’s like listening to music in that I need to hear it from beginning to end to get the full effect.

  6. I read my fiction aloud because that’s how I best hear the rhythm of the sentences. It’s easier to spot when I’ve used too few or too many syllables. But for some reason, it never occurred to me to read my blog posts aloud. I’ll have to try that.

  7. I haven’t read mine out loud. I’ll have to try that out. I read carefully, and I notice when the flow stops as I trip over a phrase. I go back and rewrite it. Unfortunately, my success in rewriting it is not immediately apparent. If I am not successful, when I reread it later on, the flow will stop again right there! Perhaps reading out loud would enhance my detection of flow-stopping phrases. Thanks for your post, Christi.

  8. Roz and Vaughn, Brave souls. I read aloud late at night when the house is quiet and my spouse sleeps. I can’t imagine reading my novel to him. That makes me more nervous than reading around a table full of writers! 🙂 Though, he does have an eagle eye when it comes to catching grammar mistakes…maybe I’ll have to buck up and torture him with my story :)….

    Cathleen, I’m with you on stereo instructions, too. A few weeks ago we put together a dresser for my daughter, and I started sweating as I fanned through the instruction book. I wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t read it out loud!

  9. This is a wonderful post, Christi. I almost always read my work aloud, at least once. It’s the only way I can catch those final pesky awkward phrasings and typos, and I do agree that it helps me to find my voice. I hadn’t thought about the aspect of preparing for book readings and presentations, but that also makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the resources!

    • Lisa, I hope I get to hear you read some of Hattie’s words out loud soon. Those are such great narratives; turning them into spoken word would enhance them even more!

  10. Fabulous post, Christ! I don’t always read out loud, but do often. Now, I’m going to try to do it closer to always. 🙂 And, thanks also for all the great links.

  11. My college’s workshop technique centers around reading your work aloud, connecting your writing to oral story telling, getting a feel for how the words sound when you make them with your mouth, not just with your fingers. I’m trying to start up a project of prompts, where people reply with videos of themselves reading their response pieces, but it hasn’t started up yet, perhaps because not everyone’s convinced of the value of reading work aloud. Thanks for spreading the word, in any case. 🙂

    Hannah

  12. Interesting. I’m not sure I agree. Most readers of adult fiction don’t read aloud. They conjure up the highs and lows of a voice, its strengths and weaknesses, in their own heads. When I do readings at my author events, I put a special spin on the dialogue, but that’s my take. I’m not sure I want to deprive the reader of using their own creativity and conjuring up the sound and pacing of each individual voice.
    When I’ve been the guest at some of the book clubs, I get a whole variety of impressions of who sounded like what and what each character meant. No matter the subtle differences in interpretation, each reader has been drawn in deeply by my characters. If that’s so, hopefully, I’ve done my job.

    • Francine,
      You make a good point, as well. I do love to hear an author read their stories though, for the reason you mention: so I can get their take on the characters and the pace of the story (or poem, for that matter). But, I also agree that I wouldn’t want to squash the imagination of a reader. Great food for thought. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Beth Hoffman

    Yes, yes, yes! I find reading my manuscript out loud is the finest editing tool in my arsenal. It’s amazing how the ear will pick up a bump or a lag that the eyes don’t.

    Terrific post, Christi.

  14. I always tell my writing students to read out loud and I recommend this to other writers, as well. The truth is that reading out changed my life and how I write (and revise). Thanks for sharing this. I also recently wrote a post about my first experience reading out loud when I was in graduate school.
    -Miss GOP

    • I just read your post — what a great story!

      You know, for my first read-in-front-of-an-audience experience, the timing factor really helped a ton in editing (like you mention in your post). Knowing I only had five minutes to read through my passage, I had to cut a few words here and there.

      At first, I thought I’d cut the words and put them back in the manuscript later. But, as I read through the piece, I realized that I didn’t need what I cut in the first place. That was a great lesson for me.

      (ps. tried to leave this comment on your blog, but I had a little trouble)

  15. I read everything out loud first — I mean everything! Blog posts, short stories, and even notes to my children’s teachers. I shudder to think what my writing would sound like if I didn’t do it. Great post!

  16. Great post and ongoing discussion! I read aloud only before my monthly writing group, where we’re expected to present our pages aloud (without handing out copies). It’s similar enough to performance to get me practicing, and I definitely diagnose slow and creaky passages and fix them along the way. That being said, I used to read aloud weekly for a writing group, and I found I started writing to please the audience–sentences that would sound lovely or funny or dramatic out loud but didn’t necessarily serve the manuscript as a whole.

    • Laura, You make a good point as well about a potential hazard of reading for the practice of “entertaining” an audience. I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks for your comment.

      • The hazard bit had as much to do with the same people sitting around the table week after week, and learning how to play to their tastes, as learning what would sound really good out loud. Still it was an interesting epiphany and we all had similar realizations–for instance we all got really great at writing 10-page chunks because that was the maximum page count we could bring in!

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