Lesson 2: Read Aloud/Hear Your Words

This is the most important and best tip I'm going to give you during this workshop, because when I do critiques and edits it’s often the one thing I tell everyone to do. Read your manuscript aloud. Read parts of your manuscript aloud. Read the dialogue, the narrative, the blocking (sometimes also called choreography). How you think the book should sound, how you hear it in your head as you read, is often not what’s actually on the paper. I think it's important to note that when I talk about reading aloud, I'm talking about either the process of reading it yourself--aloud, NOT in your head--or having a program read to you (in other words, listening to your book), which I think is sometimes even more effective for authors (more on this below).

The reason I think hearing your book and not just "thinking" it is such a valuable tool is because it allows you to: Gain distance from your own work.

Which then allows you to:

  1. Hear where your narrative and dialogue stutter
  2. Note where you’ve left out a word or used the wrong one
  3. Realize where you’ve written description or dialogue that are going to make your readers snicker
  4. Understand where you’ve got awkward or unnatural dialogue between your characters, or where someone sounds too formal or stilted.
  5. See repetitive sentence structure or word usage.
  6. Discover where you’ve inserted too much backstory, info dumping or started in the wrong place.
  7. See where you’ve left out description, confused your reader or inserted too much blocking*.
  8. Figure out where you've bored even yourself!

If you ask me during this workshop (or in edits) if a passage, sentence or piece of dialogue sounds right, the first thing I'm going to ask you is if you read and listened. Listening moves you outside of your own head and gives you a bit of distance from the work. I'll bet anyone who's heard their work in audiobook format can agree!

If you don't have time to set a manuscript or edits aside for a few days or weeks, then listening is the next best thing to get some distance and hear what's really there instead of what you think is there. Don’t be self-conscious about reading aloud. If you need to, find a quiet spot away from your family and begin reading aloud. Think of it as practice for when your book becomes an audio book. How is it going to sound to the people listening to it on their treadmills, or in their cars on their way to work? How much will your sight-impaired readers enjoy “hearing” it rather than seeing it? You may even wish to tape yourself reading it aloud so you can play it back.

An alternative to reading aloud is using your computer, ebookreader, phone or tablet for text to speech in order to listen. Many people prefer this and many find it helpful because even reading aloud yourself doesn't always take you outside your own head.

I actually think listening to it being read to you is an even stronger option, because it takes you totally outside your own head, takes out the inflections you think should be there and gives you a completely impersonal reading of the book, and also prevents you from still filling in what you think should be there--or how you think it should sound--and instead reads to you only exactly what's on the page.

A few free options, depending on whether you’re a PC or Mac user:

  • Speechify https://www.getspeechify.com/
  • Another option if you own an ereader is loading the manuscript onto your ereader. Some Kindle versions have this option (the actual ereader, not the Kindle program on another device), and there may be other devices that do as well (to the best of my knowledge, nooks do not).
  • There are also several app options on both Android and iPhone platform that now do text to speech. You may particularly want to search for pdf to speech apps, if you'd like a phone app for this.

The process of using this to edit your book is individual, so there is no right or wrong way to do it, but I have a few suggestions to help you get started:

  1. Edit in chunks. Don’t feel you need to sit down and read the whole book aloud. Start at the beginning, start at the middle or start with a trouble scene. Read a few pages, a scene or a chapter. You don’t need to read the whole book aloud (unless you want to!)
  2. Look at this as a way to get a sense of the flow of your writing, both narrative in dialogue. Often if you pick up trouble spots in one area, you’ll be able to extrapolate that to the whole book.
  3. Don’t edit as you listen. Decide on a system of flagging while you’re listening. Highlighting the area, a quick comment, etc. Don’t stop to edit each time you hear something. Instead, just flag it to come back to. Stopping to edit each time prevents you from hearing the scene as a whole.
  4. Pay attention to how much attention you’re paying. Are you drifting off, losing focus, getting bored or impatient to get to the good stuff? This may be a sign you’ve started in the wrong place, got the pacing wrong or have too much info dump/back story.

Mini-assignment: Choose five pages in a trouble spot in your manuscript to either read aloud or have the computer read to you. Make notes of what you hear and come back and tell us if listening to your manuscript helped you realize anything about your writing/story. And even if it didn’t, I want to hear that too!

I challenge you not to skip this lesson, even if you think you’ll never read aloud as an editing tool. Try it just for the experience of it one time. And you never know: someday you may be doing public readings, so you may as well get comfortable reading your work aloud now! If you have read your work aloud yourself in the past, this time instead let the computer or another program read to you.

*Not sure what blocking is? Visit the addendum lesson on blocking in this module for an explanation.

Participant Quote: The other awesome thing about this is that my MS is dual-perspective. So for my female, I had Vicki read it and for my male, who I found easier to listen to, I had Alex read.

Participant Quote: When I have the robo-voice read back my work and also have the "track changes" function running, the robo-voice says the crossed-out words instead of the final version. How can I remedy that without turning off the "track changes"?

Angela's response: If you're in Word, you can view your document in several ways. If you see the track changes, you're viewing as "Final Showing Markup" which is the way I generally suggest viewing it. However, if you view as "Final" then you can have it read to you w/out it reading the crossed out words. Just be careful to realize you're viewing like that, before sending to someone w/track changes still in it, not realizing you've done it (you would be sad for other authors to know how often they accidentally send us manuscripts with track changes in it, because of viewing as "Final") You might also find it helpful to view the deleted changes in balloons instead of inline. I prefer to view changes in the balloons, as it provides an easier reading experience for me. You could also try that.