Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reading Aloud: Does It Benefit Anything?

I've edited a variety of works for different people over the years. From high school through college into today, when it went from friends and friends of friends asking me to edit term papers and fiction, into today when I've spent my professional life editing newspaper articles and press releases, I've held onto one single practice that has always served me well.

Reading aloud.

Now, some people might say reading aloud is a crutch, that we shouldn't rely on it as a be-all, end-all editing tool to craft proper sentences. I agree with them for the most part; there's no real substitute for knowing the rules of grammar -- what a compound modifier is and how to use it, the proper method of comma placement, how to craft a sentence so your meaning is clearly understood, etc. All these things can be accomplished without reading a single line aloud.

However, and other people have said something similar, I can hear grammar mistakes quicker when a sentence is read aloud than when it's read silently. Good writing means nothing if you trip over the words; any speechwriter worth their salt will tell you that. Good fiction is the same way. If the rhythms of the words are off as we read them, then the story suffers. A technically correct sentence may be an example of good writing in the academic world, but if the cadence of the words doesn't flow naturally when someone reads it aloud then that sentence wouldn't work in a novel.

Since I love me some examples, I'd like you to read the following two sentences aloud:

John went down to the corner store. 

John done gone down to the corner store.

Now, the second one is clearly incorrect grammar. If you were reading merely for proper grammar, you'd change "John done gone down" quicker than anything. However, if you read both sentences aloud, you'll see that they both communicate the main idea in a clear cadence. The second sentence is merely written in a dialect, while the first sentence is not.

Someone reading the second sentence without reading it aloud would probably change the sentence. I know I would, unless the context the sentence occurred it merited leaving it in dialect like that. Reading aloud has the added benefit of allowing you to see if the proper emotions are evoked within a certain section. However, and this is the key part, do not put any inflection on the words. If you have to add inflection to a sentence in order to make it evoke sadness, or anger, or anything like that, then you've written the section wrong. The words need to speak for themselves in all cases. Because let's face it: most people who are reading your book/short story/whatever aren't going to be listening to it as an audiobook.

Do you read your work aloud, dear readers? How has it helped you?


L. T. Host said...

I can't say that I do on my own, mostly because I don't have any place to do it where no one else has to listen to me. It's a practice I've been meaning to try, because when I DO read my work aloud at my critique group, it really does catch some tiny things I might otherwise not have noticed.

Joshua McCune said...

All the time (though usually it's mumbling -- all crazy like :) -- helps me spot awkward sentence structure more than anything.

Eric W. Trant said...

If and when you get published, someone's gonna make you read it aloud at a signing, on youtube, to your fellow authors, someone, somewhere, and you'll stink it up and drip sweat on the pages.

Better to do it upfront before you have an audience.

Me, I read in my head, aloud. I have plenty enough voices in my skull without the one in my neck plagiarizing my thoughts.

- Eric

dolorah said...

I rarely read my stuff aloud; and then only to for assistance in grammar or punctuation. Sometimes it sounds different aloud.

But my work is meant to be read, not spoken - even with the advent of audio books - and so it has to convey everything internally. I would not have changed your second sentence example for the reason you stated; it is gramatically incorrect to add dialect.

In my critique group, we read our warm up prompt aloud, and I've noted we all tend to add inflection to our voice to convey the proper tone and tension. That's OK, because we're not polishing our snippet, just showing off what we can come up with in 15 minutes time.

But when it comes to an actual WIP, reading it aloud should not change the feedback. As you say Matt, if the writing doesn't convey proper sentiment, then it needs editing.

Audio books are a great story medium, but only as a convenience to "readers" who can't pick up the actual book.

Eric: I dread ever having to read my work aloud. No amount of practice will ever make that a comfortable experience for me :)


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Definitely read aloud, but not as often as I should - usually just on the final, final, final draft of something before I send it off somewhere.

But it DOES help.

p.s. Hope you're getting lots of writing done! :)

Adam Heine said...

I always do as a final polish. It helps me slow down and hear where the prose sounds off, even if it's technically right.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I've edited HATSHEPSUT close to 12 times and I think 3 of them were full read-alouds. Maybe 2 1/2. It's invaluable!

Davin Malasarn said...

I do read aloud most of the time. I find it very helpful for all the reasons you mentioned above. I'd disagree with your last comment about inflection, though. I think sometimes reading with an inflection adds to the reading aloud experience even if the inflection isn't required for the visual part of it.