Editing freaks a lot of people out. Drafting is creative and inspirational, and every writer LIVES for that moment when you get into the groove and the words just flow. But editing is kind of the opposite. It’s analytical, with a rigid set of rules that have to be followed. I think this is why so many writers say it’s their least favorite part of the process.
I’m one of those weird people who love the revision stage. LOVE. IT. It’s one reason I started our monthly Phenomenal First Pages contest. I really like reading a passage of writing and picking it apart, examining it from a macro and micro perspective to see how it can be improved.
In the entries that I critique, I see a lot of the same mistakes, which means I offer a lot of the same suggestions. And one bit of advice that I say A LOT is Read your work aloud. It’s one of those little practices that are so simple but can help your story in huge ways.
Why Does It Work?
The bottom line is that we can read in our heads super fast. But when we read out loud, we’re forced to form the words with our mouths, which takes more time. This results in a slower process, and when we slow down, the brain can more accurately see what it’s reading.
Mental reading results in a certain amount of brain processing as we’re seeing, analyzing, and comprehending the words on the page. But reading out loud adds an auditory element as our brain not only sees the words but hears them, too. More processing is involved. More processing requires more brain power and leads to better editing, comprehension, and pretty much everything else the brain is doing at the time.
Bottom line? When you read your work aloud, you catch a lot more mistakes than when you zip through a manuscript mentally. Here are some of the issues that reading aloud can help you see and resolve.
1) Typos and the Like
We’re so familiar with our own stories that when we read them in our heads, our brain tends to see what it knows we meant to write rather than what we actually wrote. The process of reading aloud helps us see (and hear) the typos, misspellings, word omissions, and other minor mistakes that can result in a messy manuscript. So from a simple proofreading level, reading out loud can have a major benefit.
2) Poorly Structured Sentences
When we read out loud, we’re more likely to read the words the way they would be spoken. So when we get to a rambling or wordy sentence, we stumble. That verbal fumbling is a sign that the sentence isn’t clear and needs revision. It’s not as likely to happen when we read in our heads, so reading out loud is great step toward tightening the writing.
One thing that catches the reader’s attention in a bad way is repeated words and sentence structures. Three sentences in close proximity that start with I, multiple sentences that are structured similarly, or even repeated usage of a normally invisible word like cold—these repetitions can start to grate on the reader’s ears. Read those passages aloud, and the repetitions will grate on your ears, letting you know which words and phrases need to be rewritten.
4) Confusing Passages
When we’re not mentally racing through a paragraph, it’s easier to be more analytical, and one thing we should always be aiming for with our writing is clarity. Does this make sense? While reading aloud, you can keep questions like this in the back of your mind, and it will become more obvious when something is confusing or vague.
5) Pacing Issues
We all know what it’s like to read a scene that’s a little boring: we’re hit with the urge to skim ahead to the interesting parts. That skimming becomes more obvious with verbal reading because you hear yourself skipping content. Identifying the issues in our writing is sometimes the hardest part of the problem, and pace is one of those sneaky buggers that doesn’t announce itself. So slowing down and reading the words aloud can provide a better opportunity to see where the pace is dragging. (Psssst…it also works on the flip side, for passages with too-abrupt shifts.)
6) Unrealistic Dialogue
Readers are intimately familiar with dialogue because it’s how they communicate. So stiff, stilted, or unnatural dialogue is going to pull them right out of the story. Reading aloud can help you identify places where your character’s speech needs to be refined. Here’s what Browne and King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, have to say about this:
“We’re used to hearing relaxed, normal speech in real life. much of the stiffness in a passage of dialogue that doesn’t show up when you read your work silently will spring right out at you when you read out loud. You may find yourself making little changes as you read. If so, pay attention to these changes—your ear is telling you how your dialogue should sound.”
One of their suggestions is to have a friend read through a passage of dialogue with you, like it’s a screenplay. You can also record yourself reading a scene’s dialogue. Either way, hearing the dialogue spoken aloud will give you ideas on where it might not quite ring true.
7) Voice Inconsistencies
For me, getting a character’s voice right is one of the hardest things. Just figuring out all the nuances of a character’s individual voice is hard enough, but then you have to write it consistently through the entire story. But Browne and King come to the rescue again, with an interesting solution to this problem.
They recommend reading aloud each character’s point-of-view passages consecutively. By putting them all together, you remove any other character’s narration and can focus solely on one character at a time. This allows you to hear any inconsistencies in their voice.
8) Lack of Emotion
A common issue that I see in critiques has to do with character emotion—the lack of it, to be specific. If we want to really engage readers, we have to tap into their emotions, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to clearly communicate the character’s emotion. Yet too often, it’s not clear what the character is feeling, so the reader doesn’t know what they’re supposed to feel.
When we read aloud, we tend to naturally read with inflection. If your reading sounds flat and dull, it’s very possible that it’s missing the important emotional piece. Examine your character. Is their emotional state clear? Is it being conveyed in a way that’s engaging for readers—shown, instead of told, through physical cues, internal visceral reactions, dialogue, and thoughts?
The benefits of reading your work aloud kind of go on and on. I suggest verbally reading your whole manuscript at some point—not all at once, and not even consecutively. But reading every word aloud during the revision process is going to improve your story in lots of small (and not so small) ways, leading to a much more satisfying experience for your readers.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.