Listen to Yourself, Writers!

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Years ago, in an effort to read more poetry, I began my writing work days by reading poetry out loud at my desk. I read classics, 19th century poetry, poems I’d hated in high school, foreign poetry in translation and modern poetry. It was fun, actually, but what I also noticed was that I became more aware of the sound of words and the rhythms of putting them together to create images and meaning. Eventually, I stopped reading poetry out loud because my workload increased and I didn’t have the time. But I never forgot how I benefited from it.

Writing is a solitary endeavor and it’s easy for a writer to get stuck in her mind, hearing her inner mind’s voice say the words she’s writing. But it’s important to get those words out of the mind, not only on paper (or computer screen) but also in sound, in the air.  For the benefit of the writing, then, it’s important to hear someone else read it out loud, or for the writer to read it out loud.  I’ve heard of writers recording themselves reading their writing out loud, then playing it back and listening to it closely, as well as just reading it out loud.

cover july2015 the writerIn his article “For the ear” in the July 2015 issue of The Writer, Jack Hamann describes his process for checking his writing for the sound of words.  I agree with him that it takes time and several readings before all the clunky rhythms, inaccurate word images and grammar issues have been caught, and then it’s time to enhance and enrich the writing through sound.  I have been quite surprised at the really embarrassing mistakes I’ve caught in my own writing by reading it out loud.  Another common mistake I make is repeating a word or phrase way, way too much.  For one draft of Perceval’s Secret, I read aloud in order to delete every “now” I’d written.

How does the writing sound?  Is it easy to read aloud or a struggle?  These areD44 Hand held tape recorder the two general questions I begin with, and then I add specific issues to cull out later.  Hamann offers several tips to keep in mind also for reading out loud to create writing with a pleasing sound and smooth to read.  They are:

  • “Vary pace, create space.”  Variety spices up your writing and allows for emphasis.
  • “Treasure thy thesaurus.” Find words that sound interesting.
  • “Appreciate alliteration.” Make important phrases memorable with alliteration, but be careful not to overuse.
  • “Or not to be.” The verb “to be” and its conjugants deaden writing.
  • “Ax articles.”  Punch up sentences by deleting unnecessary articles like “the.”
  • “Pare prepositions.” Use adjectives next to nouns, not prepositional phrases that weaken the nouns.
  • “Say it loud. Say it proud.” In other words, do not whisper.  If someone else is reading out loud for you, encourage him to point out issues.

For the Perceval novels, it’s especially important to me that my writing sounds right, is smooth to read, and I catch any issues in manuscript form because of the story’s close association with the world of classical music.  Evan Quinn would be angry if I didn’t respect the music of the words as well as the writing.

So think of your protagonist and how he or she may want to sound to a reader, what sounds the setting evokes or what kind of rhythm you want the prose to have.  Then listen to yourself read your prose out loud…..




4 responses to “Listen to Yourself, Writers!

  1. Good tips. If I may add a suggestion: if you are the one doing the reading (perhaps you’re not yet ready to have your story fall upon the critical ears of your mother/spouse/dentist) try recording yourself and then listen back. You can more easily catch lapses in flow and dialogue inconsistencies this way, whereas when listening to yourself in ‘real-time’ they are often overlooked, so absorbed are you in trying to sound like David Attenborough 😉

    • Thanks for the comment, Daniel! Yes, recording oneself is a way to hear writing read aloud without involving other people. I’ve not done it myself. I continue to read aloud myself, and I do each draft so I do it several times. It’s also helpful to earmark a specific issue to watch for in each draft so that it’s not overwhelming…..

  2. It’s extraordinary how beneficial reading aloud is – I pick up nuances and errors, clumsiness, unnecessary vocab when dealing with my WIP. Thank you for this – and for Jack Hamman’s tips. ‘Sound’ advice and tips from both of you, thank you so much.

    • So true, Susan! I’ve caught things when I’ve read aloud that would have been terribly embarrassing if someone else had caught it. Thanks for commenting!

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