Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reading Aloud in a Small Room Behind Closed Doors ...

Now, why would I want to do that? It’s not just for the peace and quiet, although that is part of it. What I am looking for is a space with some potential for echo and resonance, where I can read what I have written and really hear how it sounds. Reading aloud is often listed as one of the steps in the self-editing process. Or call it revision, re-writing, just plain editing and fixing. The importance of this aspect of writing and re-writing was reinforced for me at a recent fiction workshop I attended. It’s on my mind, so at the risk of going over old ground, I want to focus for a bit on how it can help us reach our goal of a finished manuscript.

We’ve all had a lot to say over the past months about revising: what we like, what we hate, how to do it, tips from Janet on how to strike a balance between her marvellous Muse and the Evil Editor that inevitably she must allow into the process. Most writers love to discuss, share experiences, and learn from each other. Ultimately, we all have to find out by trial and error what truly works in our own situation. I hope you will consider the value of reading aloud. I know many of you already do it when you are editing.

The connection between any work of fiction and the art of storytelling is closer than we might think. In most cultures, stories were handed down from one generation to the next without ever being written down. It makes sense then to look at how the oral traditions captivated the interest of groups of people sitting around campfires. In more recent centuries, families and friends gathered in formal drawing rooms to listen to readings from written texts. In both instances, the stories had to speak to the emotions through lively action, fascinating characters, dilemmas of plot, and a flow of narrative that was at the same time natural and dramatic.

We can test whether these conditions exist in our stories by reading them aloud, or alternatively, asking a friend with a good reading voice to read our work to us. Then we can hear how the words flow or trip up the tongue. If a sentence is difficult to read aloud, then it will surely be an impediment to the silent reader as well. Awkwardness of expression, so jarring to the ear when stumbled over in its oral presentation, will also be troubling to the reader’s eye.

Reading aloud can reveal repetition, of words and phrases, more quickly than reading with the eye alone. Unintentional changes in point of view or tenses become obvious when spoken. Actually speaking the words of dialogue that we have put into the mouths of our characters can be mortifying when we realise that nobody uses that many words to communicate thoughts and feelings. When members of writing groups share their work by reading aloud, those following the text on the written page notice that sometimes the words that are being spoken are not identical to what was written. Of course not, because what was written did not flow naturally, or was not dynamic enough, or was too convoluted and needed to be cut short. Reading aloud will reveal whatever needs to be fixed.

Another benefit of reading your own work aloud is to hear the voice as it resonates against the walls. The small room with the door closed is not just to shut out the external world, but to keep the sound of your voice contained in a limited space. This goes beyond the normal concept of “voice” in writing to include the actual sound of the narrative, the dramatic tensions, and the emotions of both dialogue and interior monologues.

Finally, imagine how useful all those reading aloud sessions in your bathroom will be in the future. You will have developed a confident reading voice for all those invitations you will receive to give readings at the public library. Practice makes perfect!

Now for a few links. There are many books, blogs and websites that offer tips and checklists on revising techniques, a few of which I will mention. You will notice that reading aloud is only one of the elements of revising you will need to master. I know some writers dread revision, but I like to look at my early drafts as chunks of ore that need polishing and refining. I enjoy the process of self-editing my work to fully reveal the sparkling qualities of the gem that I hope lies at the core.

I have not read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. Harper Collins, 1993, but I found it referenced while I searched for resources. Sounds useful.

Lillie Ammon provides seventeen tips for self-editing, and notes that six of them call for setting the work aside for a time to allow for a fresh perspective each time you go back to revise or proofread yet one more time. Reading aloud is one of the edits she recommends.

For a brief list of ways to clean up your prose, including reading aloud, look at this one.

So, once more the call goes out to the faithful readers of this blog. Do you read your own work aloud? To yourself for self-editing, or do you participate in a writers' group that uses this practice for critiquing each other's work? Have you discovered something unique of any sort that would be helpful to others in the revising process?


Vince said...

Hello Helena:

Wonderful post!

I’ve read copy out loud for over thirty years. When I first started writing advertising copy, my copy editor would read my bad copy out loud to the whole department to great laughter. It didn’t take long for me to pre-read it before the boss ever got a look at it.

I have a further refinement to reading out loud. Listen to well spoken ‘Books on Tape’ like Janet Evanovich’s books or M. C. Beaton’s books and notice how the professional reader’s voice changes for the different characters in the book. Try to do this with your own dialogue and see if all your characters sound like the same person. Ideally the reader should be able to tell which character is speaking without having to be told by the author. If you can't make the voices sound different this way, you know you have a problem.

I have another editing tactic that I love. Set your copy in 24 point type so each word is very large on the computer screen. This way every word becomes very important and you are forced to think in words and single sentences. I find doing this is one of my most helpful editing techniques.


Suse said...

Hi Helena, great post today. Vince I like your suggestions as well.

Because I have a Blue Pencil session booked with Elizabeth Lyon at the Surrey International Writers' Conference in October, I thought I would check out some of her books from the library. I've already read "A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction" and found it useful. I am now reading her "Manuscript Makeover." I am only on page 34 and have decided this is a book I will buy and then have autographed at the conference.

Elizabeth too encourages writers to read aloud when editing. In fact she recommends the following steps in what she calls Deep Listening:
1. Read silently and listen.
2. Read aloud and listen.
3. Tape-record and listen. (Follow along with a paper copy of your manuscript so you can make changes and/or notes as you listen.)
4. Let others read aloud and listen. (Again have a paper copy of your work.)
5. Take notes or make revisions as you go.

She has so many other great suggestions for revising as well. Sorry this turned into a plug for Elizabeth Lyon.

Whenever I have students come to me for help with their writing, I have them read out loud, and I follow along with them on a paper copy. It is amazing how often students comes across and pick out poor wording or faulty reasoning in their own writing. AND they always thank me for helping them when all I've done is listen.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I know I've mentioned before that at my writing group here in the Peg we read our scene/chapter out loud. I really have to listen because we don't give out paper copies to follow along with. Like Susan said happens with her students, I often find many faults with my own work as I'm reading aloud that I hadn't noticed when reading silently. And of course my writer friends pick out many more mistakes! It is definitely a most worthwhile thing to do.


Helena said...

Hi, Vince! Glad you popped by today. You have added some good ideas. I know an English teacher who listens to 'Books on Tape' when she has to drive long distances, but I had never thought of listening to them to benefit my own writing/reading.

Large font? I don't know ... but I'll give it a try.

Helena said...

Suse, you and I are just making people envious, but good for you. You are doing practical things relating to writing (love your research and comments about all the various aspects of reading for editing -- silent, out loud, listening to others, all good stuff)

But back to Surrey -- I'm trying to read fiction by some of the authors who will be there (Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, etc.)

Thanks for your comments today.

Helena said...

We read at my writers' group, too, Jana. I am properly humbled (many times!) when I stumble over some of my sentences that weren't really ready for public consumption, but our group is a very safe environment and the other eyes and ears are so helpful. But you're right, you know it yourself when you read it to them!

Man, I still haven't digested all the classic plots/themes you listed this week and last. So glad you did, though. Very useful.

Thanks for being here today.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great post, Helena. I always read aloud. Usually, I'm by myself and can read as loud as I want, but I even do it when the family's watching TV. It's easy. I just take whatever top/t-shirt I'm wearing and pull it up over my nose. Then I read. The sound is muffled yet I can hear it plain. The family can't. Works good for me.