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Itchy Bitesized 11: "Who Says This?" Make sure the reader knows who's talking.

Itchy Bitesized 10: Ten Reasons to Read Your Work Aloud

You know there are no rules for which words get on the page, nor for how you should set about putting them there. But there are tools - and one of the sharpest and most universal is reading your work aloud. What's more, it applies to any kind of writing, from poetry and fiction to your doctoral thesis. I'm not talking here about preparing reading for events or reading at events, but about reading aloud, to yourself, as part of the editing process. Here are some reasons why it's such a good tool, and some things to help you wield it.

1) Meaning into sound: Your brain has to analyse those black marks into sentences which mean something, before it can set the motor nerves in your lips, tongue, vocal folds, jaw and diaphragm working, and control them to speak that meaning. This process gets you closer to the experience of the reader, who doesn't already know what the words are.

Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904 WikimediaCommons
Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov by Ivan Kulikov (1875-1941) Source Wikimedia Commons

2) Checking words: When your brain meets a typo or a literal it will say to your reason, "Huh? How am I supposed to say that?". 

3) Checking sentences: When your brain meets vocabulary, grammar, syntax or punctuation which doesn't add up, it won't know how the stresses, inflections or pauses should go - because it's not sure what the meaning is. So it'll say to your reason, "Huh? How am I supposed to shape this sentence?". Oddly, reading aloud often works for picking up homophones too: rain, rein, reign and Rayne may sound the same, but they don't mean the same, and your brain spots it even if your spellchecker didn't. 

4) Shape and rhythm: If your prose tends to fall into the same shape and length of sentence too often, this monotony is quickly revealed, because the sentences will all have the same rhythm and inflection. It'll also show, if your sentences are too messily long, or to boringly consistently short. 

5) Punctuation: Punctuation originated as a way of registering in writing how a sentence would have been spoken to make its meaning clear, in the absence of the speaker. As "reading in your head" developed in the 17th century (yes, that recently), punctuation marks came to have a slightly separate life and set of rules for on-the-page sentences. But your brain-mouth-tongue system, trying to speak the meaning of your sentences, will often point out where the commas and full stops should be  - and where they shouldn't. 

6) Repeats: Your aural memory registers what you've just read aloud: if you over-use a particularly noticeable word, use the same metaphor two pages running, or the same phrase very often throughout the book, your memory will alert you, even if your eye-reading didn't.

7) Dialogue: If your characters' voices are unconvincingly written the clunkiness will be more obvious when you voice them (sorry!). If they're poorly differentiated, they'll all sound the same. For more on dialogue, click here. And I've never worked out a consistent, find-and-replace type rule for when to contract do not into don't and would have into would've, and when to let them stand (and vice versa), but your voice will tell you what comes naturally in narrative and dialogue. 

8) Tongue-twisters: If you struggle to get your tongue round a sentence, chances are your reader's mind will struggle too. Having said that, I've sometimes found that a sentence which works really well on the page, doesn't work when I'm reading at an event, and vice versa. I'll edit it for events, but even when I could change the print version - say for the paperback - I'll probably let it stand. Horses for courses.

9) Speed: Reading aloud, you can't skim, as your eye so easily can with a text that you know by heart (and may be thoroughly fed up with): to communicate it at a normal, readerly pace, you have to read what's actually there.

10) Getting someone to read your work to you can help you to experience it from the outside; some writers I know even use the read-aloud facility of their word-processor. And if your reader-aloud is human, they may give you useful feedback. What this doesn't do is put your words through the ultimate mental-physiological stress-test of you reading it yourself. Some writers record their own reading-aloud and listen back, again for the getting-outside thing, which could be worth trying.

The editorial read-aloud process

A full read-aloud is probably most useful at a late stage. But reading paragraphs or pages aloud to find out whether the narrative voice is working, whether the dialogue convinces, or whether a particularly tricky couple of sentences are finally reading well, will be super-useful at any stage. To get the most out of the process, bear these in mind:

a) Have the text in a convenient form not just for reading, but for marking things up with as little fuss as possible, without losing the forward momentum of the reading. For me, that's a generously-marginned printout and a biro; if you're on screen, it's perhaps track-changes, and knowing the keyboard shortcut for making a comment balloon. Above all, make sure you don't get sucked into fiddling.  

b) You're not acting - even professional audiobook narrators would say it's a very different job from acting - but to get your brain engaged you do need to be trying to communicate the story and characters to an imagined someone.

c) Drink lots of water and keep going with the snacks. Reading aloud is dehydrating, and uses calories too. A real energy slump can leave you disengaged and mumbling, and you'll miss things you'd otherwise have picked up. If you're going straight through it will take a day, and you may get a bit hoarse. 

d) Try not to be self-conscious: truly no one's listening. If you still can't bring yourself to do it, it's probably your Inner Critic trying to shame you into staying safe, by dressing up as your Inner Elocution Teacher. B***cks to the IC: they just don't want you to do what at heart you know your writing needs.

e) Self-consciousness is death to good writing, and to reading-aloud. To communicate, you have to feel free to be whole-hearted about it. If you really can't face the thought that others might hear you, pretend you're a spy in a Cold War Moscow hotel, and put music or the radio on to baffle the unseen listeners. And you might not be a good candidate for recording yourself.

And if you're still not convinced, I'll share an anecdote which actor, novelist, and audiobook narrator extraordinaire, Imogen Church, told in a Society of Authors seminar. Before he was a bestselling crime novelist, Mark Billingham was an actor, and so he narrates his own audiobooks. Apparently, he won't send the final draft of a new book to his publisher until he has recorded the audiobook. He's that convinced that only in reading the book aloud will he find every last thing which could be working better. What better reason do you need to read your work aloud?