As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately, out loud to my daughter. (She doesn’t seem to hear them when I read silently.) It’s made me more conscious of how words and sentences flow together and has helped me streamline my own, wordy prose. Another out-loud experience recently confirmed this insight for me. For the first time in a long time, I had to give a public reading, as part of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Commonwealth Reading series. It made me realize how much I gained when I read my work out loud, even to myself.
Not only was this reading public, it was in my hometown of Worcester, in a big gorgeous building called the American Antiquarian Society, and my mother had recruited her friends to come. Whew. It was going to need to be good. I had only ten minutes to wow my friends and neighbors and most of my short stories are on the longer side (see above: wordy). So I picked a story I’d set in a fictional version of Worcester—about the parents of a boy who’d jumped into a reservoir and not jumped out—and set about cutting it down to ten minutes. I set my iphone timer and started reading out loud. (I happened to be in a hotel room in Colorado while I was doing this, which added a surreal element to the exercise, but if you can’t afford a hotel room, your house will do nicely.) Here’s what I learned:
Make your beginning clear.
It turns out that it took a while for me to explain who these people were and what was going on with them. I’m not counseling that you dumb down your ideas or make oversimplified declarations, but reading out loud showed me how cluttered my beginning was with unnecessary logistics about where they are in the house and in relation to each other. Until I read the beginning out loud, I hadn’t noticed it before. I needed to streamline the stage direction and focus on what was happening that mattered to the story.
Take note of when you cringe.
Reading your work out loud can feel like wearing a bathing suit to the office: strange, awkward, cringe-inducing. There is nowhere to hide. The page may allow your clunkers to glide by, but aloud your bad habits will be exposed. The good news here is that, if you’re reading in a room by yourself, no one will hear your goofs and you can correct them without embarrassment. (If a writer edits in his room, does anyone hear it?)
Another lesson I learned reading aloud in my hotel room is that I often over-edit myself. Though there were verbose sections, there were also moments when I’d scaled back too far. I once had a graduate professor who thumped the concept of finding and using the precise word. I took this lesson to heart, and sometimes to the bone. Reading aloud, I found myself putting words back in, fleshing out important moments. Reading can show you where you need to cut and where you need to paste.
Figure out what your story is about.
If you’re feeling brave, or have a great writing friend who’s willing, read aloud for an audience when you’re still in the editing stage. The power of those other ears cannot be underestimated. They are virgin ears. They hear things that you cannot. After my Mass Cultural Council reading, one of the other readers came up to me and said how much she liked the darkness in my writing. Darkness? I wondered. Of course, I’d just read a story about an accidental suicide, a pair of parents who can’t seem to comfort each other, and a realization that death is final—so, yeah, it’s dark. But I’d never realized it until I read it out loud and someone told me. (I tend to be a bit of a Mary sunshine in life, so I’m wearing this declaration of darkness as a badge of honor.)
Similarly, you may discover that a story is about something different than you thought, or that people are laughing at the sad parts and you’ve written a comedy instead of a tragedy. But you’ll only find out if you open your mouth and read.