The Read-Aloud

It’s a bit of common writing advice to read your work aloud as a part of the editing process. Sounds reasonable enough—it lets you hear your dialogue and whether or not it sounds natural; gives you a sense of clumsy grammar or repetitive sentence structure; and can maybe help give your prose a poetic flow.

I started my read-aloud this week, excited and ready to go.

But I discovered all too quickly that reading my work aloud made it sound… bad. Not horrible, but not great.

Part of it is no doubt the somewhat casual, conversational style I deliberately wrote with, which doesn’t have the elegant style of beautiful prose (not that I could achieve that if I had tried). But as I read I quickly convinced myself that something was inherently wrong with my writing, that I was doomed, that I needed to give up and bury this first attempt in a bottom drawer.

Then I took a moment, and read some other book, and started to really look at the sentences.

As we read, we tend to accept what’s there without questioning it, because it’s printed and finished, published and accepted by someone other than ourselves. Our eyes glaze over repeated ‘said’s,’ or a penchant for certain adjectives, or even simplistic phrasings. Sure, really bad writing can stand out, but sometimes even that goes by in a gentle haze as we focus on character, dialogue, and action. We also tend to give those characters and their dialogue the benefit of the doubt—they feel more like complete people, because we have to accept them at face value.

It’s different with your own writing. You know that you can change it, that you should change it if it’s not good enough, and that colors the way you see every sentence and every word. A line of dialogue that you wouldn’t even blink at from someone else is suddenly the worst thing you’ve ever seen when you write it yourself. A plot point that might elicit only a touch of skepticism when seen on screen leaves you feeling worthless and like a hack if you even tried to use it yourself.

This comes from the impossible standards we set for our own work, and it’s obviously meant to drive us on to greatness. But it’s all too easy to let these standards become a prison for your work—a prison that keeps you locked up in your own self-doubt, unwilling to venture out into the greater world.

After reading this other book, which is from a series that I love and is certainly successful, I started to feel a little better. I thought about reading this book out loud, and realized that it hit some of the same “problems” I had sensed in my own read-aloud—a certain plodding to the text, a blandness. Again, this is not a criticism of the writing; I actually think that most books, outside of literary masterpieces perhaps, sound a little bland when read aloud. Maybe I’m just not as familiar with the sounds of books read aloud, as I don’t listen to audiobooks or attend readings. Maybe the types of books I enjoy (and write, apparently) are just not the type that produce melodies to the ears.

And that’s okay. My book is far from perfect; it may even be horrible. I’m preparing to start sending it out, and also preparing myself for a deep ocean of rejection. I’ll deal with that as it comes.

But I’m not going to let my anxiety about its quality keep me from at least trying. And while the read-aloud might be showing me I’m no poet, it is helping me find awkward sentences and repeated words. So I just have to get through it, fix the edits, and then send it out to be ignored.

Or maybe, someday, to be read aloud by someone who isn’t me.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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