Advice for New Writers: Read Your Draft Out Loud

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When I first began dabbling in fiction, I would read my pitiful drafts out loud to my partner, Jon. “Can I read you this line? I think something’s wonky here.” He would say sure, and I would start to read my draft, voice wavering, blush rising, and I would hear that wrong word, that errant grammar, the same second he did.

After awhile, it became habit for me to read him finished scenes aloud. I am a terrible copy editor left to my own devices, and I found reading the draft out loud to him helped me suss out nearly all the typos and grammar errors. It also helped me work out the flow of the scene: this sentence is too long and complicated; this sentence is too short and choppy. This paragraph drags on forever. The dialogue here flowed way better in theory than in practice. Reading the written words aloud–while always a touch awkward–helped highlight weak spots I missed just by reading through the draft on my own. Often Jon wasn’t even paying attention. He was watching court TV or folding laundry or cooking dinner and murmuring sweet, supportive words of encouragement at neat, repetitive intervals. But it was good practice. I still do it with final drafts of short stories*, or with particularly difficult scenes in novels, only this time alone in my bedroom in a whisper.

The reason this trick works is because written language and spoken language are tied together. When people read, they do this thing called subvocalization: because we associate words with sounds so strongly, we mentally “speak” the words as we read them. People vary along the degree to which they are aware of which they do this, and apparently a big part of speed reading is investing in techniques to minimize one’s reliance on subvocalization to comprehend and process what you’re reading. Anyway, the gist of it is that when we talk about a writer’s ‘voice’ we are, to some extent, talking about a literal voice–so reading a draft of your work out loud to work out the kinks and zero in on what your writerly voice is when you’re getting started is not as kooky as it sounds.

Also, then, when you make it big you’ll totally have it down for your book readings.

*I’m not as confident with short fiction as I am with long form fiction, so I tend to run the final draft through every test I can before sending it out for submissions. I trust my gut a bit more by now with novels because I’ve written more of them and have a better sense of what works with them.