Reading aloud

I’ve finished my slash-and-burn draft of Anomalies, so it’s time for one of my favourite parts of the process: reading it to myself.

It’s not enough to simply read over your own writing. As anyone who has submitted important documents in a hurry knows, your eye can slide over typos. You can miss places where you’ve used the same word twice twice by accident.

And I don’t find spellcheck especially useful, so I work with it turned off. Most of my stories involve invented words and names, vernacular, and dialogue with less-than-perfect grammar. A typical utterance from Malo the giantess in The Celestial Kris, who doesn’t share a native language with the other characters, will just about make Word toss its cookies:

‘Crocodile have the strong teeths. She very bigger than you, little sister – she eat you, she still hungry.’

A good way to test your writing is to give it to someone else. They’ll be seeing it for the first time, experiencing it as your target readers will. But before I give my work to others to read, I like to make sure it is as polished as it can be. With small errors out of the way, the trial-reader can focus on the big-picture stuff like structure and character development.

I find there’s no substitute for reading aloud.

I do it for all my major projects. For poems – even silly ones – I check for rhythm and scansion. For plays, it’s crucial: people are going to be saying those words aloud, so if the lines don’t come out of my mouth smoothly, they’ll probably have trouble too. I even did it for large assignments at uni, and caught some incorrect references that I otherwise would have missed. I enjoyed drama at school, and people in my classes at school and uni used to say they liked my reading voice, which was a surprise to me the first few times. I can’t sing, I’m generally too loud, and my accent is rather strong. But I’m comfortable with it now. I enjoy giving speeches and lessons, and reading aloud.

Lots of experienced and well-respected authors swear by reading aloud. Here’s how I go about it.

meddickensreading

Dickens wrote his work to be read aloud by the family hearth.

 

  1. Be well and comfortable.

It’s no good trying to proof-read with a cold, even a tiny one. Every little sniff will take the focus off the writing, and reading wears me out much faster when I’m not a hundred per cent.

I like to sit upright in a chair with good back support while I’m reading aloud. It’s hard to read aloud while hunching because it compresses the diaphragm.

  1. Find somewhere quiet and secluded.

The further away I can be from other people (and lawnmowers), the better. It makes me less self-conscious, improves my concentration, limits interruptions and doesn’t disturb others.

A bedroom is not ideal. I can’t tell you the number of times my concerned siblings and parents have heard me yelling to myself in five different voices and come to ask, ‘are you okay?’, ‘who are you talking to?’ and ‘what the hell are you doing?’

To which I answer – guiltily, holding an imaginary sword – ‘sorry, I was proof-reading.’

  1. Bring a glass of water.

I don’t drink coffee, alcohol or anything sugary while I’m reading aloud. Coffee and alcohol affect speed and clarity. Sugary stuff sticks to my throat and makes me sound like Kermit the Frog. If I want food or tea, I take a break and don’t resume reading until my mouth is clean. A seed in the teeth while reading is a terrible distraction.

It is helpful to have a glass of water on hand, though. I sip it while reading to keep my voice consistent. Plus, your body loses water through your breath and evaporating saliva, so I find I get dehydrated quickly without it when I’m talking nonstop. Lip balm helps too.

  1. Warm up.

Vocal warm-ups are helpful. Sometimes I do a little singing exercise or a few tongue twisters.

  1. Decide how to make the voices in my head come out of my mouth.

I usually test out a few character voices, too; just the ones I’ll need to do in the chapters or scenes I’m about to read. My typical ‘reading aloud’ voice is the narrator, or stage directions. The others will have different accents, vocal ranges, dominant attitudes, speaking speeds, emphasis, and so on.

For example, with Malo the giantess, I do my best resonant contralto coupled with her distinctive syntax and an accent that can’t quite pronounce ‘th’ sounds. For Maddie Waxblake in The Glass Street Ghost, I did a typical ‘teenage airhead’ voice. The Dark Lord Gilbert in Shift was a fun one – posh and hammy, a cartoonish villain voice with melodramatic delivery. It doesn’t matter if the voices sound kind of silly; I’m only reading to myself, after all.

  1. Set up the voice recorder.

It’s not enough for me to just read the piece – the most useful part is hearing it played back to me. That means recording it, usually on my phone. The phone should be close enough that the microphone can easily pick up my voice, but not so close to the laptop that I can hear myself scrolling. I give each chapter its own file, which means I get frequent breaks and can navigate more easily later.

  1. Read aloud.

Mumbling behind one’s hand simply isn’t enough. Reading aloud means reading aloud. Emphasis on the loud, in my case.

I pretend I’m performing to a small crowd of listeners. I get lost in it. I do characters’ gestures in my chair. I read the words that are actually there, not the ones that I think are there. Typos are startled out of hiding by the spotlight of my voice. Sometimes I’ll stumble over a sentence or say it differently, and if so, I often change it to what I said, because that sometimes sounds more natural. Sometimes in the middle of reading, something will stand out as naff and I have to stop and fix it right then. If it’s a play or a speech, I have a timer on hand as well.

  1. Listen to the sound files.

Because I spent all that time recording, by this point I have my very own audiobook!

This is one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole writing process for me. Hearing it played back lets me experience it as a reader might. It’s all new again. I’m not scanning the page for errors or doing any work; I’m simply receiving the story. I listen while walking, driving or gardening. This is where the sneakiest mistakes can be weeded out – slight grammatical problems, odd sentences, unnatural rhythms.

 

After all that, I usually edit the document one more time before passing it on to my trusty trial readers.

I can’t recommend this method highly enough, whether it’s for stories, essays or even a cover letter on a resume. It works brilliantly for me. Plus, if I’m to share the piece later, it’s a perfect chance to practice.

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