Reading aloud: not just for Big Bird!


Welcome to the Mercury Theater, ladies and gentlemen...

One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century is the computer microphone. Not only can you sing karaoke in the privacy of your own home without the benefit of gin and a disco mirror ball, you can download sound effects and make cute wav-file greetings. You can even record podcasts, if that’s your kink.

But there’s an even better application for this little gizmo that you can now purchase for two bucks used from any Goodwill store in the country–for proofreading and editing your writing.

I know I didn’t invent this little technique, but the first time I used it, I felt like Madame freakin’ Curie. Why hadn’t I done this for years? I could have saved myself endless embarrassment, improved my writing, maybe won the Nobel Prize…okay, maybe not that last part. But the point is, if you’re not making use of this practice, you’re quite literally missing out. You’re missing typos, bad sentence structure, stilted dialogue, the works. Let me explain.

As I’ve mentioned countless times in countless issues of Fun with Conan the Grammarian, as writers, we see what we think is there, not what’s actually there. We know the story so well, we can see it, smell it, touch it. It’s vivid in the cellar of our imagination. Unfortunately, this rarely translates directly to the page, and recording helps you see this.

Reading your work aloud into a recorder of any kind has a two-fold benefit. The first is that while you’re doing the actual reading, you will catch mistakes and problems because your reading speed is cut by 75 percent. When you have to slow down enough to speak the words (usually 50-100 words per minute), you’re really seeing the text, while when you read silently (200-250 words per minute on average), you skim, you infer, you fill in blanks.

The second benefit comes from then listening to the recording. “But Conan,” you whimper, “the recorder makes me sound like Joan Rivers on helium! I don’t sound like that!”

Yeah, actually, you do. Get over it.

Look: Even though listening to your recorded voice is nearly as torturous as listening to the Spice Girls, you must gut it out. Because this second time through, you will catch even more mistakes and problems, since you’ll be hearing dialogue spoken. At certain points, folks, I guarantee you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Nobody actually talks like that!”

You’ll also hear run-on sentences, awkward sentence construction and things that just plain don’t make sense. What you can’t make yourself see on the page, you will hear. I’ve found that I’ll even catch logistical problems. (Huh. In the last scene he was an amputee. Now he’s holding his face in both hands. It’s…a miracle!)

The absolute gold standard, however, is reading your work into the recorder, playing it back and then shaming someone else into recording your writing.  This is the best place to hear how your prose will sound inside your reader’s head, and where you’ll find out if you’ve written dialogue so that it sounds the way you meant it to sound, and means what you want it to mean.

Example: In my novel Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, a character named Bill says “You were a hippie, weren’t you?” to his frenemy, Father Pete. I thought it was obvious how it should sound, because I know Bill better than I know my own children. But when my husband Andy read it aloud, it was all wrong. I meant it as an insult, but Andy read it like an earnest inquiry. Big, big difference. So I had to clarify how Bill said it in the preceding exposition so there could be no mistaking what he meant.

Start using this little trick and you will be amazed at how much your writing improves…and maybe you’ll learn to enunciate too.

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