“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.
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!
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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.