Friday, October 4, 2013

When in Doubt, Shout It Out

A well-known, multi-book published author finished her latest manuscript and presented it to her editor.

“Would you like to read on paper, on computer, on Kindle, on iPad?” the author asked.

The editor shook her head. “I would not like to read on paper, on computer, on Kindle, on iPad.”

“But—” the author began.

The editor held up her hand. “Nor will I read in a box, on a boat, with a fox, or with a goat.”

The author closed her laptop, thinking the relationship had finally come to an end. “I am sorry you have no interest in this book,” the author said.

“That is not what I said.”

“But you refused to read. Not even in a box, on a boat, with a fox, or with a goat.”

“I did.”

The author was confused.

The editor continued, “I would not like to read on paper, on computer, on Kindle, on iPad. I will not read in a box, on a boat, with a fox, or with a goat.” She smirked. “I want you to.”

The editor then sat in a tufted chair, snacking on eggs and ham, while the author stood in the middle of the office and read her latest manuscript her entire manuscript out loud. For ten hours. From start to finish.

While the above dialogue is imagined, the story is real. The editor believed the best way to decide if a book was working was to hear it.

And you should too.

Advice about reading your dialogue aloud has become common. Dialogue is spoken. To ensure it sounds natural, like a real-life conversation, it makes perfect sense to give actual voice to the lines. Whether you add the accent, pitch, or inflections you heard in your head while writing is optional (and dependent on your flair for dramatics). But I think we can all agree that reading your dialogue out loud can improve your writing.

But what about the rest? Description, narration, interior monologue, what comes of reading your entire book aloud save for a sore throat?

For one, it’s different. We writers read the words we write dozens of times. A hundred is not out of the question. We write, read, rewrite, tweak, wordsmith, perfect. And we can vary it. We can read on paper, on computer, on Kindle, on iPad. In a different font may be more useful than with a goat, but the underlying need is to read your book in a way that gives you a perspective closer to that of a new reader than one who practically has the text memorized.

Reading your manuscript out loud changes your perspective. In hearing the words spoken instead of simply in your head, you instantly have a new experience, a new lens through which to attempt to read your book like a virgin reader.

Second, you increase your chances of finding mistakes. Our brains are very smart. And, like autocorrect, try to account for our imperfect fingers. As well-meaning as our brains may be, this “help” translates into us skipping over extra words, inserting missing ones, and glancing right over tipos typos. Reading aloud ups the odds of finding these stealthy errors.

Finally, giving voice to your words makes those words better. When you read a sentence with warring words, fiercesomely frustrating alliteration that drones and groans and marathons on out loud, a lack of breath, an abundance of boredom, and a numbing of brain cells shine a spectacular spotlight on what, on the page, worked fine. Saying the words out loud points a finger at ill-placed or missing punctuation, run-on and thus confusing sentences, and other unintentional missteps like the one a writer friend once told me about.

He was attending an event where an author was reading from her work. To a packed crowd, into a microphone, the author read a personal, moving account of a milestone event in her life. Raw and soul-baring, the passage turned on the spigot for everyone in the room. And then she ended the reading. 

With a rhyme. An unintentional, inappropriate, mood-ruining rhyme.

If she had only read the ending out loud before this moment, she wouldn't have left her audience torn between tears and laughter.

Take control of your writing by infusing it with voice, literally. A bonus, if you have the guts, is taping yourself and listening in the car, in the gym, while folding laundry. Work through those tricky spots by changing your perspective.

And hey, at the very least, you'll have the most personalized Christmas gift imaginable for friends and family.

Do you read your work out loud? Does it improve your writing? Are you willing to risk the sore throat to test the theory?

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Spring 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.


  1. Ooooh, GREAT post! I never thought about this until I had the opportunity to meet Kristin Cashore at a conference several years ago. She writes her first drafts longhand (like I do) but then due to a medical issue, she uses a voice-to-document (or whatever they're called, she uses Dragon Speaking Naturally, I think) to enter the manuscript on the computer. She told me that hearing the book read aloud was one of the best aids in deciding if something actually worked or not. Since then, I've read all of my work aloud (though I'm self-conscious, and private, and tend to hide when I do it) and I can't say enough how important it is to hear what you've written.

  2. Thank you! That's really interesting about Kristin Cashore. I have tried to use Dragon (some wrist issues) and found it difficult to do for straight writing from my head but from longhand, that'd be great. Love hearing stories of how other writers write. Thanks for sharing! And, yes, I'm self-conscious when reading aloud too!

  3. I always read aloud and it makes all the difference. I catch typos, overused words, missing words, continuity errors (Jeans? Wait, wasn't she wearing a dress two pages ago?) along with the occasional sentence I am sure made sense at some point but now just seems like a random grouping of words.

    I've found that if I don't push myself past 50-70 pages I can stay focused. But yeah, it feels weird. And sometimes my cats laugh at me ;-)

  4. I do this too and it's soo helpful, though I usually lose my voice at some point. I also read my first manuscript out loud to my twins' 3rd grade class over the course of a month of lunchtime reading visits to their classroom. Needless to say, that one underwent massive revisions once I saw the places the entire class got fidgety and realized how much I was improvising wooden dialogue. Ugh! But it was a great learning exercise in pacing and dialogue and left me convinced in the benefits of read-alouds. Does anyone know of a good program for recording the "book on tape"? I like the idea of a personalized Christmas gift!

  5. I know there are apps for that! For recording in iTunes and I think you can do with Garageband if you have a Mac. I'd both love and hate to have an audience to watch as I read my book to them!