Friday, April 21

The Benefits of Reading Your Work Out Loud

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy


Language is a funny thing. Our brains can handle combinations of words that our mouths can’t. We can run the most challenging tongue-twisters through our minds without a pause, but saying them out loud causes us to slur, stumble, and stall. Which is why reading a scene out loud is a great way to find clunky writing or a bumpy narrative flow.

We skim over words when we read silently, understanding the meanings even if we don’t read all the words (we’ve all seen those badly misspelled sentences that still make sense). That's why it's so easy to miss typos and invisible descriptive words—our brains fill in the blanks and cut out the chaff. But when we're forced to read a sentence out loud, we trip over any words causing problems.

I’ve done a lot of readings at school visits over the years, and let me tell you—read the same pages out loud five times in one day and you get a very good idea of where the trouble spots in a scene are.

Catch the Clunky Words


There's a line in the first scene of my novel, The Shifter, that I stumble over every single time I read it to an audience. It sounds fine in the book, but something about the combination of spoken words is a tongue twister.
The night was more humid than usual, but a gentle breeze blew his sand-pale hair.
Unless I really concentrate, I say "bleeze."

If I were revising that breeze sentence now, I'd probably get rid of the alliteration (much as I love alliteration). The “breeze blew” is the problem. Any number of words would get the same idea across without the stumble. For example:
  • The night was more humid than usual, but a gentle wind blew his sand-pale hair.
  • The night was more humid than usual, but a slight breeze lifted his sand-pale hair.
  • The night was more humid than usual, but a gentle gust blew his sand-pale hair.
Oddly enough, despite the alliteration, “gentle gust” doesn’t cause a stumble. It’s a combination of sounds in “breeze blew” that puts the lips in the wrong positions and trips the whole mouth up.

Catch the Bad Dialogue


This is also a great trick for catching empty, wooden, or stilted dialogue. Since dialogue is supposed to be “said out loud,” anything too formal or clunky comes through loud and clear to our ears. For example:
  • “What was coursing through your mind during such an event?”
  • “It was as if you were not even listening to me.”
  • “It’s uh, well, you know, I uh, jeeze, you know what I, uh, mean there, right bro?”
It could be very easy to skim right past these lines and capture the gist of what they mean, ignoring the words themselves. But having to physically say them makes you notice every awkward syllable.

(Here’s more on writing effective dialogue)

Catch the Faulty Punctuation


We might silently read right past a comma, but we’ll pause when reading it out loud. Of course, the opposite it also true—we’ll pause because we need to take a breath, even when there’s no comma (which tells us we need some type of punctuation there). It’s also a good way to spot unnecessary punctuation, because a sudden, unnatural pause or break sounds wrong, even if it look fine on the page.

It can be time consuming, but reading your work out loud does give you a different perspective on it. It doesn’t have to be a tool you use all the time, just for those annoying scenes that feel off but you can't put your finger on why. Your eyes might not be spotting the problem, but your ears (and tongue) will zero right in on it (and save you from saying “bleeze” to a room full of sixth graders).

Next time you feel off about a scene, try reading it out loud and see how it flows. If it’s the language itself, whatever is hitting your internal ears funny should be obvious.

Do you read your work out loud? Have you ever found any trouble spots that tripped you up?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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11 comments:

  1. I get what you mean about wanting the seemingly empty adjective for the sake of good rhythm. That is the main reason I'll use adverbs when they're not necessary. Sometimes, it's just a better flow with that extra word.

    How exciting that you got to read in front of a group of students! That's something I've wanted to do, but I don't write stories appropriate to their level. I'd have to do either high school or college students (or adults, obviously), but that thought scares me. The older a person gets, the more cynical they become.

    Good advice about reading your work out loud. I do that with my stories before a final edit, and it always surprises me how much still needs a little extra tweaking.

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  2. I've done this pretty much from when I started writing. My family had another family from church over for lunch, so 14-year-old me was stuck with an 8-year-old to entertain with a room full of... books. I asked if she'd be interested in hearing the story I'd just started writing so I'd have something to do with her.

    She was my first fan and critic. I read aloud to her, and as I started writing on the computer, she read it silently along with me. I'd catch stuff from reading aloud, and then she would catch things I missed. (Yes, at age 8.)

    The read-aloud also helped with school. I'm prone to writing lots of compound-complex sentences and like technical topics. Reading a paper aloud helps avoid incoherence.

    A downside is I'm sometimes oversensitive to how something sounds, and I try so hard to make it flow poetically that it ends up silly.

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  3. Great advice. I also find printing out the manuscript versus reading it on the computer helps catch things.

    Perhaps sometime you could do a post on how to successfully do a middle school author visit. I've done a few at my daughter's elementary school even though I'm not published. They are so easy to please at that age. It seems like it'd be harder at middle school, though I could be wrong.

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  4. I did just such a post in October, so here ya go :)

    http://storyflip.blogspot.com/2009/10/being-kid-again.html

    Middle schoolers can be rough, because they're so honest. If you're not holding their attention they won't just sit there and smile. They'll talk, fidget, ignore you. There's a clear difference even between the sixth graders and the eighth graders there. Sixth graders ask a ton of questions and are very curious. Eighth graders, you never know if you're going to engage them or not. When you do, it's great, when you don't, whew, it's hard. You kinda feel like an idiot up there.

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  5. Thanks for the advice. Sorry I didn't follow your blog earlier. I worry I'd be the idiot standing up there. Hope for the chance anyway someday.

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  6. I didn't stumbled over the words when reading the sentence, but it is a good point. I like to read my work out loud. There have actually been a couple of times when I've bored myself and realized the pacing was too slow through a section.

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  7. No worries, Natalie, I wasn't scolding. Just letting you know it was there :) I don't expect everyone to know and remember every post I ever did.

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  8. Shouldn't it be sand HYPHEN pale hair? Although I don't know what that color could be, since sand comes in all colors, including black. Unless the color of the sand in question has already been established.

    But right, if you read your work out loud, you discover all sorts of things, including things you did very well.

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  9. Yep, there's a hyphen. It's in the book, I just typoed it here :)

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  10. Reading my work out loud is one of the most important things I do. I've just gone back to reread the first two chapters and I'm still finding things to correct.

    I follow you on twitter and your posts are very informative and helpful. Thanks!

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  11. Beth, most welcome! (and thanks for following) It's amazing how changing the way we look at something let's us see different things.

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