I have always been a fan of listening to stories, as well as reading them; when my sister and I were growing up, our Mum read to us every single night - for hours! And then, after she’d finished, we listened to audiobooks (‘books on tape’, as they were called back then) until we fell asleep. So, perhaps this is why I believe that authors should try reading their own work out loud. If it’s not something you’ve ever done before, it will probably feel very strange. But, I promise you, it really is worth it.
Why read aloud?
When you’re completely absorbed in what you’re writing, it’s very difficult to step back from it and see it in a different light. In my opinion, reading the fruits of your labour in a big grown-up voice, not just muttering it under your breath, forces you to distance yourself from your work.
When you read through your text in your head, you’re still in the same ‘space’ you were when you were typing. But if you speak your words out loud, you are indicating to your brain that you’re not in ‘writer’ mode anymore - you are a reader, and you can approach your story as a reader would.
One of the things I enjoy most about reading aloud is hearing what my characters are saying to one another. And, yes, I do voices, accents, the lot! Listening to the conversations you’ve written is such a different experience from reading them. When you write, it’s easy to drop in words and phrases that people wouldn’t normally use. But listening to that dialogue, especially reading it yourself, highlights anything that sounds unnatural or stunted.
Now, depending on how enthusiastic you get, reading out loud might also help you to identify actions that are occurring while your characters are speaking. When you spoke that line, did you shake your head, or wiggle your eyebrows? Well, then, mention it. Using action to portray feeling is much more effective than simply describing it. e.g. ‘Fred furrowed his brow, “What d’you mean?”’ vs. ‘With a confused expression on his face, Fred asked, “What do you mean?”’
Flow and inconsistencies
Because you’re in ‘reader’ mode when you’re speaking your work, you will probably notice things that you didn’t notice before. Little inconsistencies will spring up and perhaps you’ll realise that a portion of your chapter is a bit clunky, or seems to drag. When you’re going through these parts on screen, it’s easy to tune out from the reader experience and focus on things like, ‘ooh that comma is in the wrong place’. But, with a little distance, you will force yourself out of this habit and highlight issues with the experience your story gives, not just the nitty gritty.
Grammar & punctuation
Anyone who has read this blog more than once will have noticed that I’m not a grammar aficionado. This is a flaw I have come to accept and embrace, and a big reason why I will be purchasing professional editing help before publishing my novel (we’ll talk more about what you should and shouldn’t pay for further down the line).
My biggest weakness is an over-fondness for commas. I love them, shove them in anywhere and everywhere for no reason whatsoever. The more the better! But, reading my sentences out loud really does help to thin those blighters down a bit.
In terms of grammar and punctuation in general, listening will make you more aware of any unnecessary breaks or pauses in your sentence structure. It will also highlight areas where punctuation might be lacking.
You might not believe me, especially if you’re the kind of person who hated drama and public speaking at school, like I did. But, honestly, if you can break through the barrier of self-consciousness and throw yourself into the process of reading aloud, it really will be hugely beneficial. And fun! If you’re having a moment of, ‘Oh god, is this any good?’, listening to your own story can make you sit up and realise that, actually, yes it is good!
Take the plunge
With all of the above, what we’re really talking about is the experience of reading. In short, you shouldn’t be conscious of the fact you’re reading. You should just be able to absorb yourself in the story. Anything that jars you out of that absorption - dialogue that feels forced, a boring or unnecessary passage of text, punctuation interrupting your flow, or making it seem laborious - needs to be edited, because the joy of great writing is that it throws you into the heart of the story and wraps you up in it, all while remaining discreet and unassuming.
So, take the plunge, lock yourself in a soundproof room - or your garden shed - and allow yourself to experience your work the way your reader will. If you really are horrified by the idea of speaking out loud, even in complete solitude, there are computer programmes that will do it for you, but I think it’s the process of speaking the text that forces your brain out of its ‘writer’ headspace. So, before you write it off - no pun intended - give it a go!