One of the tricks (techniques? tools?) that few aspiring writers of fiction would probably think of on their own is to read their work aloud. Poets, yes, these days, lyric-writers perhaps, playwrights and scriptwriters obviously. (Well, not actually obviously. Many a script that lands on many a literary director or manager's desk has obviously never been vocalised at all, just as many a novel in the slushpile has clearly come from someone who's never read a novel. But anyway.) It certainly doesn't occur to many university students that they should try reading their essays aloud, and they're very surprised when I suggest it.
But to my mind it's essential. As well as reading aloud many a phrase or sentence which refuses to flow, I also read aloud every word of every novel at some stage or another. With A Secret Alchemy for one reason and another I never did till nearly the end, so I sat down and read the whole novel straight through. It took a day, and that arguably the most effective single day's work I did on the novel. You see typos your eye's been skidding over for months, you see repeated words and textual idiocies, very oddly you see homophones, your memory logs a phrase, so you notice when you use it again too soon for comfort. If your tongue stumbles the chances are the sentence isn't written right, and if the sentence isn't written right it may be that the idea isn't right (which is why it's so useful to university students). I've been alerted to holes in the plot, inconsistencies in the characters, slips and failures in the voices, contradictions in the themes. It really is like reading something written by someone else: apparently the brain processes words to be read aloud in a different place, I guess because for reading 'to yourself' you only need to comprehend the text, whereas to read aloud that comprehension needs to control muscle and breath. I know writers who use speech-generators to read the text from the computer, and a short story writer who records her own reading as an MP3 file, and listens over and over again on her iPod. 'I reckon that if my mind wanders, then any other reader's will, and I must re-write the bit where it did,' she says.
Whenever this comes up, there's always someone who says, 'Oh, I couldn't.' Most of us couldn't if we thought anyone was listening, of course, but once you've sent your partner to the pub, closed the windows that give onto the neighbours' garden and put the dog in the garage, where's the problem? We all do talk when we're alone, after all: singing in the shower, swearing at the cat, yelling at the TV. Still there are writers who won't read their work aloud. The naturally shy and retiring are perhaps disproportionately represented among writers: given the strong exhibitionist streak it takes to make a writer, if we didn't paradoxically feel painfully self-conscious about speaking up we'd probably all be actors. But why resist doing something which so demonstrably costs nothing, takes very little time in the greater scheme of things, and will help enormously?
Like all resistances - including the one which stays the knife we ought to be holding at the throat of our darlings - this one is about fear, I think. It's about fear of having our work come back to us looking like someone else's, to be judged as we do others'. O wad some Power the giftie gie us - / to see oorsels as ithers see us! said Burns, but much of the time, thank you, we fear that such a gift is likely to be a Trojan horse: who knows what might emerge in the nightmare hours, the dead of night? We've worked so hard to gag that Inner Judge, at least enough to let that first draft stream or creep onto the page. The chilly, editorial, external eye the next stage demands is ours too, whereas reading aloud puts the words out into the world. They return to our ears as a something of that world, not of our own. Who knows what we'll think of them?