Thursday, May 16, 2013

If You Want to Make Your Story Better, Read It To Someone

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I've spent so much time getting my garden ready for summer, I haven't had time to post -- even though I have plenty to post about.

One piece of advice you hear from agents and writers alike is that you should always read your work out loud to yourself. This gives your ear a chance to catch mistakes and pacing problems that your eyes might miss. Sound advice. But here’s a suggestion to make that advice even better.

Read the text out loud to someone else.

The previous sentence may have caused more than a few skipped heartbeats among the more bashful of writers out there. It’s hard enough handing your baby over to someone who’ll read it in silence. Trust me, I understand. But I cannot overstate the power of this technique.

Some critique groups operate by having everyone send in their submissions ahead of time, so that each member has a chance to critique the work prior to the meeting, saving the meeting for the actual discussions and arguments. My local critique group does things a bit differently. There are no pre-submissions. We show up and read our pages out loud. We often provide hard copies so that the group can read along and mark up the pages with comments as they wish, but many of the group members close their eyes and focus on their initial reactions to the words.

And one thing I’ve learned is that no matter how clever your words looked on paper, or sounded when you read them out loud to yourself, you’ll be stunned by their apparent lameness when you read them to someone else. The parts of your chapter that need work will stand out like spaghetti stains on a white shirt. Flabby passages will sear your eyeballs and make you wonder why you ever thought you could write. Most of the time, you’ll find far more problems with your work than your critique partners ever will.

Reading out loud also makes it easier for your partners to spot pacing problems. As readers, we’re used to skimming over sections of a story that don’t hold our attention—even if we’re not always aware we’re doing it. But when we listen to a story, scenes that drag stick out like a sore thumb. Try listening to a book on tape sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

I remember listening to a chapter at my critique group a few months ago that had a slow beginning. When I read back over the hard copy to mark the offending pages, I was shocked to discover that the boring section was only two paragraphs long. It had only seemed liked two pages when I was listening.

So if you really want your words to shine, force yourself to read them to someone else. You might be embarrassed, but you’ll be glad you did.


  1. Another fantastic way I've seen this advice applied is by feeding your manuscript into Read It, a cheap mobile app (it's like two bucks). But the reading voice is so atrocious (intolerable is what I've heard it described as) that every mistake comes sailing out.

  2. I've read my work out loud to my wife before. Not fun, but the lameness, especially in the dialogue, becomes really apparent.

  3. It would probably be better to have someone else read it to you. Or as suggested above use an app to read it to you or the text to speech option on a Kindle.

    As the author you'll read it with all of the inflection and emphasis that you imagined while writing it. That's a handicap if you want to know how it will sound to your readers who won't have that inside knowledge.

  4. My crit group used to use that method, but it just didn't work. We switched to submitting ahead. My cats are really discerning listeners... I used to go to an open mic at my library to practice reading aloud.

  5. I've found that using TextAloud (text-to-speech) works great as does reading it aloud. I've never had anyone else read my stuff to me though. Interesting thought there.

  6. My critique group does presubmissions too. Maybe we'll try a read aloud at our monthly support meeting. I read to my hubby as he drove us to the last SCBWI writers' conference. He was very surprised how much better it read than the last time. He actually liked those 3 chapters I sent you. I like both Sarah's ideas and Jeff's. Whoever or whatever reads besides the author would be better. Ywriter free writing software does that too. I've been meaning to try it.