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SF&F Troubleshooting with Delia Sherman: Reading Aloud

July 27, 2010

One of the most useful pieces of writing advice I’ve ever gotten is one of the simplest:

Before your last draft, read your story out loud.

I’m not talking about droning through it as if you’re reading the telephone book or a recipe for roast chicken, or trying to outtalk John Moschitta.  I’m talking about paying attention to what your sentences mean, listening to their rhythm, finding different voices for the characters’ dialogue.  I’m talking about reading as if you were reading to an audience of restless 4 year olds.

Simple isn’t the same thing as easy.  Reading aloud well takes practice.  At first, you will probably feel self-conscious.  Do what is necessary to combat this.  Lock yourself in your room, issue earplugs to everyone sharing your living quarters, cover your face with a veil—do whatever it takes to make it possible for you to wade in there and read what you’ve written with drama and verve.  And when you come to a line of dialogue you simply can’t deliver, a descriptive sentence you get lost in the middle of, a paragraph or narrative or exposition that you find yourself wishing would end already, stop.  If you can think of an easy fix, (a word changed or taken out, a phrase moved, a sentence cut in half), fix it.  If it’s going to take fussy rewriting to make it work, make a note, and carry on.

The fact is, if you can’t read a sentence aloud easily, it’s probably wordy or grammatically awkward or otherwise unclear, ambiguous, or wrong for the context.  If you find yourself stumbling over a word, it might be the wrong word, or in the wrong place.  If you find your attention wandering as you read a paragraph, it could be because the paragraph is repetitive, that it presents too much information, that its emotional or rational logic is faulty, and needs to be reexamined.

Mindful reading aloud is the best way I know to get rid of extraneous adverbs –especially those describing speech, e.g., “she said happily.”  Reading aloud helps me be aware of the rhythm of a scene—where it moves slowly and where it speeds up—and lets me know whether I’m building tension or undercutting it.  It alerts me to expository lumps and verbal tics (my characters shrug more often than a room-full of Frenchmen) and all the thousand natural ills that prose is heir to.  Most of all, reading aloud saves me from getting all caught up in something—a description, a narrative passage, a conversation—that might be fine in itself, but interrupts the flow of the story I’m trying to tell.  The ear is less forgiving of such distractions than the eye.

Once I’m done with poking sentences, rearranging paragraphs, changing words, inserting commas, and cutting, cutting, cutting—I read it all again.  With feeling.  Because even the driest, most cerebral, most fantastical or science-fictional stories are ultimately about human emotion and desire—the writer’s desire to communicate their vision to a fascinated and engaged reader.

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