How Reading Aloud Improves Your Writing
We learn to read by reading aloud, and we never lose this connection between the oral and the textual[i]. Things that are easier to say are easier to read. And the easier something is to read, the easier it is for the reader to be in the story rather than be stuck on the text. Hard to read sentences may make you sound terribly clever but they also encourage the reader to put your book down and do something else.[ii] This makes reading aloud a vital tool for editing, whether you are trying to polish realistic dialogue or produce beautiful prose.
For reading aloud to work you actually have to read your story aloud. Mouthing the text is not good enough. When you read silently you end up translating the text away from what is actually on the page. It is easy, however, to fall into the trap of reading silently. You can try reading on to a tape if that helps, and playing it back for extra checking. You’ll probably find, however, that with each read through you are making immediate revisions – and that it takes quite a few goes before you find a draft that does not feel stiff. This makes reading aloud a time consuming exercise, and one that requires some discipline. But if you actually take the time to do it properly, and read every word aloud, the process always improves your document.
It is easiest to see the benefits with dialogue, although everything I’m about to say about dialogue also applies to the rest of your prose, for, erm, reasons. REASONS![iii] Anyway. You want your dialogue both to sound like a) something people would actually say, and, b) something your character would actually say. But text is written, obviously, and while good writing is smooth, readable, and attractive most conversation is anything but. Real life dialogue is full of ums and arrs. It is often dull. People repeat themselves inordinately and rarely finish a sentence. In conversation, you can fill in the gaps through body language, sound and context[iv], but without these things to help them a reader of real dialogue is left lost, bored and looking for something else to read.
Writing good dialogue, therefore, is not a process of recreating real speech but rather faking it. You have to write in a compressed and focussed fashion without losing the character’s natural voice. However, with your help, your characters get to benefit from a kind of precognitive esprit de l’escalier[v]; you can polish out the pauses and the repetitions, have them speak only when meaningful, and say only meaningful things. I don’t mean make them always right and always win their arguments with only the most beautiful rhetoric. I mean cut out all the confusing crap.
The good news is that reading aloud makes it obvious which is which, because bad dialogue will be hard to read – you will stumble over it. This isn’t about turning everything into perfect academic writing. Dialogue in full sentences and full words will sound formal and odd, whereas fragments and contractions are part of a normal and natural way of speaking. On the other hand, deliberate misspellings to imitate accents and dialects are dangerous, as are phrases that are excessively polysyllabic[vi]. The extra time it takes to figure out the sounds and words you are reaching for may confuse and distance the reader. There are, of course, great writers who have succeeded using dialectified spelling. But I know I’ve found my eyes skipping down a page of cleverly constructed dialogue because its purpose has seemed to be to show off the author’s intellect rather than to engage me with the story.
Reading aloud helps with this in two ways. First, if you find you are having trouble making the sounds and finding the meaning in your dialogue, you need to change it quick because your readers will have no chance. Secondly, you can use rhythm and speech patterns to recreate particular styles of speech without indulging in hard to read misspelling. Le Carre is rather brilliant at this – he manages to find ways to make, for example, a Stasi interrogator sound German even when speaking perfect English. There are lots of ways to give your character a regional flavour without resorting to misspelling. Does your character tend to turn statements into questions? Mildly overuse prepositions? We all have individual patterns of speech and, done correctly, they will reveal themselves in your characters if you practise reading their words aloud.
It isn’t all about sound though. Exposition through dialogue is a useful trick, but forcing information in where it doesn’t belong can feel reasonable when you are writing but utterly turn off your reader. You know the feeling when you are talking to someone and they wander off into an unrelated tangent? Text that slides into telling rather than showing will feel the same way when you read it aloud: weird and non-sequitur. Every time you get that “hang on, why the hell are they talking about that” feeling then you need to stop and change the text. Yes, this means an awful lot of heartache trying to find ways to explain the world of your story without explaining the world of your story, but hey, you’re a writer, heartache is what it is all about. Apparently.
So, before you hand your work over to your first readers, and even though it will take a long time and make you feel ridiculous, for best results make sure you read every word of the text aloud. Ideally in the same order as on the page. Watch out for where you feel like changing the wording. Then change the wording. Use contractions, run on sentences and fragments to make dialogue more natural, but avoid deliberate misspelling and polysyllables like the plague. Sure, ignore these rules if you have a good reason, but it had better be a good reason. Use rhythm to indicate dialect and characterisation rather than wobbly words. Finally, if you are finding a section boring or tangential, you need to get rid of it. Talk, it turns out, is expensive; and if you can’t afford to say it aloud, it doesn’t belong in your text.
[i] I’m tempted to say between the oral, the aural, and the textual; between the sensation, the sound and the form; but then I’m just showing off and it’s not much of an opening paragraph sentence. Still, there’s something within the physicality of the reading process that connects to the sensation of sound and the production of sound. See what I mean? Showing off. Pseudo-intellectual bollocks. That’s right, I’m in the ego-battered self-doubting part of the writing cycle. Enjoy!
[ii] Unless you’ve assigned them your book as part of their reading for a graduate course. In which case they’re stuck, and you’ve helped explain a great deal about the nature and style of academic writing.
[iii] OK, yes, to me, at this moment, it is more fun to reference Mr Torgue from Borderlands 2 than to argue that all prose is tertiary dialogue. Or possibly primary dialogue. Whatever. When your character’s speak, their speech is reported by the narrator: all the rest of the speech is the dialogue of the narrator, be that you, the author, or another character (who is, of course, you, the author, from a certain point of view). So the voice of narration follows similar rules to the dialogue of characters: it has to be in character, the harder it is to read the easier it is to ignore, and if it wanders of the point the reader will lose the point. See? REASONS!
[iv] Also known as “the exciting stuff.” Seriously, most people use spoken words like I use fashion sense. Thank goodness people are pretty to look at otherwise we would have stopped listening to them ages ago.
[v] Diderot – the spirit of the stairwell – that moment just after you’ve left the party when you suddenly realise the perfect response to the obnoxious argument you suffered. Happens all the time. Particularly if you’re in the habit of arguing with people at parties and live in France. Thankfully, your characters don’t get to leave the party until you are done with them.
[vi] Like this one. But not that one.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/43927576@N00/3386183521″>nick reading green eggs and ham to his little brother – _MG_9632</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>