Read Your Manuscript Out Loud

Nat RussoBasics, How-To, Process, Voice 32 Comments

“George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” – Harrison Ford to George Lucas.

Harrison was saying that if George had taken the time to read Star Wars out loud, he would have discovered problems that reading it silently couldn’t reveal. I like his wording better, but let’s take a look at what we’ll find in our work if we take the time to use the spoken voice.

Musicality of Language

Your manuscript needs to have good characterization, interesting settings, characters the reader wants to follow, and a great plot. But that’s not all it needs.
When you read a book you can hear the words in your mind. Some people even subconsciously form the words on their tongue without opening their mouths. Words have sound. There’s no getting around that. Whether someone is speaking them, singing them, rapping them, or writing them, there is a certain sound and texture to the language.
A rhythm. A musicality.

Some sentences are long and complex, drawing us into the mind of the writer and pulling us from one idea to the next, filling our senses with a fictive dream.

Others are short.

Unless you take the time to hear what you’ve written and taste the words, you may not see that your last three paragraphs contained five sentences each that had identical structure … the literary equivalent of sleeping pills for the reader. You’ll miss the music, or lack thereof.

And you’ll miss a great opportunity. It’s one thing to get ideas down on paper. It’s quite another to create a symphony of words that evokes a feeling of loss and sadness when the reader turns the final page and closes the book. You’ll miss the opportunity to add that special something that other manuscripts lack. If you read your manuscript out loud, you’ll hear the symphony…or lack thereof.

Structural Problems

There are more mundane things that you’ll discover by reading out loud too. Have you ever gotten notes from your readers/editor that read “structural problems” without any indication of what they mean? Did they tell you that something just wasn’t working, but they have no idea what?
Much of the time the “what” comes down to structural problems with your sentences. That’s not to say there are grammatical problems, though there may be. But grammatical problems are easy. The editor circles them, you fix them, and everyone’s happy. Structural problems are uglier. They cause sentences to fall flat or become a tangled mess of word vomit. They make your work unpalatable just like food without any spice. 
You’ve felt the effects of this before. You’ve turned the radio on and heard a new song from your favorite band. Your heart raced with excitement because you’d never heard this song. But after a verse or two, and a less-than-thrilling chorus, you deflate because the song just doesn’t work for you. You don’t know why. You like the band, you like the genre, but you were expecting “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and wound up with “Lemon”. (With apologies to U2. But…come on guys…Lemon? Really? 🙂 )
Reading your work out loud forces you to listen to yourself. It forces you to read your work the way a reader is going to “hear” it when they internalize your words. It’s a great way to find structure issues and fix them. You’ll find sentence length issues, unexpected rhymes, alliteration that causes tongue twisters, and a host of other things you may miss on a cursory read.

It wasn’t until I read an early draft of Necromancer Awakening out loud that I discovered just how much work I had left to do! Two years and 5 bestseller lists later, I can say with confidence that it was a good decision.


Plan For Success

You’re going to be published someday, right? You want to do signing tours, comic cons, and not-so-comic cons? What do you think they’re going to expect of you at those events?
They’re going to want you to read your work out loud.
That’s right. You’re going to have to stand in front of a group of people and read your own words (huge crowd, I mean. We’re planning for success, and this is MY fantasy, dangit!)
Reading your work out loud now, while the work is still in progress, will reveal those tricky areas you missed when you read it silently. Are you getting out of breath? You’re going to feel funny if after a single paragraph you feel like you’ve run a marathon. 
Did you write a word you’ve never had to speak out loud before? You’ll be embarrassed if the first time you’ve ever had to say potable is in front of hundreds of people that know it should rhyme with floatable (as opposed to suggesting something capable of being potted).
Do yourself a favor and get in the habit now.
Do you read your work out loud, or have you developed other techniques to enhance the musicality of your prose? Let me know in the comments section! 

Related Articles

Sign up for the free Erindor Press newsletter. Stay Informed. Be a better writer. Your contact information will NEVER be shared for ANY reason.

Join Nat on Facebook for additional content that he doesn’t post on the blog or on Twitter.

Be part of the conversation! Head on over to The Mukhtaar Estate and see what everyone’s talking about!

About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 32

  1. Hey, Nat! You are so right about reading aloud. I have a love/hate relationship with this step, but it is so important – and so very worth it. My issue is the fact that it’s typically my last stage – just when I think the manuscript is perfect. I’m excited to be moving to the publishing phase only to be forcing myself to suddenly hit the breaks and crawl that last mile to the finish line. Reading it aloud takes so damn long; however, it really does seem to be the best way to catch everything that doesn’t “sing”.
    Good advice!


    1. Thanks, Jimmy!

      I’m still not quite as systematic about it as I’d like to be. In revision I usually “whisper” it out loud to myself. It forces me to think about sentence pacing and whether or not I’m getting out of breath as I read (a good indicator of structure problems, punctuation issues, etc.) I definitely need to be more technical about it.

  2. I did this for a manuscript. I think the biggest thing I found when reading out loud is how many redundancies I had. I think I just skipped over them in my head, but after saying the word bakery four times in a row, I know something’s up. Good point!

    1. It’s amazing how that happens! As we read silently, our mind tends to fill in the blanks. It also tends to skip over mistakes because it’s busy parsing for meaning. As soon as our mind believes it understands the point of a passage, that’s all that matters to it (like that experiment you’ve probably seen, where you can write an entire paragraph with all the words scrambled, but as long as the first and last letters are in place we can still understand it).

      Invoking other mental functions, like driving the jaw muscles, tongue, lips, breath, etc, takes us out of that mode completely.

  3. I cheat. I use the read aloud function on my computer while I read along silently. The computer NEVER invents what it reads, so it’s the best for catching mistakes. I did recently re aloud the first chapter of my WIP prior to guesting at a book club (in case it was appropos to share it) and wound up trashing that chapter in favor of starting with chapter 2

    1. It’s way faster than reading aloud to yourself – If you circle errors on a hard copy as you listen, you can go through an entire MS in one day. I do this prior to sending my MS to my proofreader. In my experience, proofreaders can hit a saturation point where they aren’t as effective. I help her stay sharp by getting everything I can. I want her for the stuff I can’t see, not for stuff I can fix myself.

  4. I totally agree, and am amazed that more writers don’t understand the wisdom of reading their words out loud. I teach a creative writing class, and we write in class, then immediately read our stories out loud to the rest of the group. Amazing what we learn about our own writing, and what we learn by listening to the writings of our peers.

  5. Excellent post. I’m actually doing a series right now on how the brain processes written words, and one of the key concepts is that we read and think exclusively in sounds — syllables. Words are secondary (as far as our brain is concerned). We had language 2 million years before we had writing. The “sound” of the word is all that matters, even if we’re reading it on a page.

    1. This is so true. When I moved to Germany back in 2003, I felt as if I couldn’t tell where one word ended and another began, based purely on sound. Learning the language from a book didn’t help with this at all. I had to keep listening the language, day in and day out. Then, one day I actually started recognizing the individual words. I didn’t understand them yet, but it still felt like a victory 🙂

  6. Hi Nat,

    Excellent! Reading work out loud provides you with truth serum. How does it sound? We know that answer instantly when reading our work out loud. Smart advice!

  7. While editing I swear by ‘reading out loud’, but often this is difficult due to my usually busy writing environments (small child at home, noisy cafe etc). Technology to the rescue: using my writing Mac to read my manuscript to me, headphones on. Works great for me. A great for catching basic errors that always slip by, no matter how many times I read over paragraphs in my head. To echo the thoughts in the article above; I think there’s a mental block – I know what the text is supposed to say and no matter how many times I read back a broken paragraph, it gets mentally transposed into the fixed version… Aside from this personal (perhaps not…) writing quirk, I find having work read aloud is fantastic for ensuring there’s a beat to the prose, that conversations make sense and fixing pacing.

    I’ve made it really simple to access text-to-speech my writing tool of choice, Scrivener (OS X). Simply right click the main toolbar, customise, and drag the icon for the text-to-speech into the bar. If you click this while no text is selected, your Mac will start reading the entire document from cursor location. Alternatively, selected a block of text, a scene, a chapter, and this button will read the text back.

    1. Post

      What a great tip, Shell! Thank you for sharing that! I use the Windows version of Scrivener. I’ll do some digging around to see if I can pull off the same trick.

  8. This is excellent advice!
    I accidentally discovered the benefits of reading my manuscript out loud while reading it to my mother, who is blind. She’s an avid reader, “reads” at least 2 digital audio books per week, and was very anxious to “read” mine. As I read my work out loud, I found many areas where the “structure” you speak of needed attention. As many times as I had read the manuscript over and over, I never noticed it, and I’m now telling all my author friends about the benefits of taking the time to do this.

    Thank you for the tips and information you share here. They have been an invaluable resource to me as I continue my journey to publication. You rock!

    1. Post

      Thank you so much, Crystal! I’m glad to be of help!

      Necromancer Awakening was recently picked up by Blackstone Audio and made into an audio book. I’m about half-way through the finished product, and I’m *still* finding structural issues where the prose looked great on paper but sounds not-so-great when being read. I’ll need to hit book 2 even harder. 🙂

    1. Post

      Oh wow, I hadn’t thought of text-to-speech through Scrivener! I have the Windows version, so I’m not sure if it has the feature or not. I’ll have to check that out!

      When I’ve used text-to-speech in the past, it’s been on an export to Microsoft Word.

  9. Oh my gosh, I consider myself a huge Star Wars fan but I’ve never read that quote before, but it’s totally amazing! (And definitely explains the wooden dialogue in the prequels LOL!)
    I really identify and agree with your post! My go-to way to find mistakes in everything from spelling/grammar to poor dialogue to weird wording to just random mistakes (didn’t she have blue eyes a page ago kind of thing) is reading out loud!

    1. Post

      It’s such a great tool for finding those random mistakes! When we’re reading, our mind fills in the gaps. And since our mind has the complete picture of what we’re trying to say, it skips right over typos. But when we’re forced to vocalize the text, we employ an extra processing mechanism in our brain that isn’t capable of filling those same gaps.

    2. Another thing about reading aloud: even the most dedicated writers have been talking longer than they’ve been writing. (It’s why dialog ought to be easier than writing anything else– except that readers are more used to it too, and have higher standards. Like Harrison Ford, who never forgets his basics.) So speaking engages all that practice, and it’s different practice than writing is so it catches different things. It’s the most powerful super-easy tool there is.

  10. I didn’t know that potable was pronounced poatable – and I looked at a sign about not drinking ‘potable water’ everyday for 2 months while volunteering on a conservation project in Malta!

    Totally agree with you about reading outloud – discovered much of my dialogue commenced with ‘so’ and ‘well’ and that one of my characters sighed all the time.

    1. Post

      I have a confession to make: neither did I until I wrote this article. 🙂 I’ve been guilty of pronouncing it both ways all my life.

  11. Call me a narcissist (no, don’t. It would hurt my feelings), but I love to read my own brilliant writing out loud, doing all the voices. And yes, it slows me down enough to hear a lot of oopsieses and catch a lot of typos and grammar crimes that I glossed over when reading silently.

  12. Other authors told me about this technique…I ignored it. It would take too much time.

    Then when I did the narration for one of my audio books. I was humbled by three things.
    1. The talent and skill of the voice artist, Megahn Kelly, who narrated my first audiobook.
    2. Words I thought I knew how to pronounce…I had to look up.
    3. Even after having the manuscript professionally edited, I found a few more fix-it’s.

    With the next book, I plan to incorporate the read-out-loud technique. I will have to check out text to speech!

    1. Post

      It will really up your game, Lisa. It’s amazing how many typos remain after close to 100 times reading over the manuscript. Our mind happily fills in all the blanks for us.

  13. I do that as well. I load my manuscript into cool reader and listen to it on the train to work, keeping notes as I’m listening. Reading aloud is great but even then you can miss a lot as you’re reading it now you want to hear it, this Robot voice reads it exactly how it is, no bias.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.