Reading Your Work Aloud

Here’s another excerpt from the next book in the Red Sneaker series (soon to be released), Excellent Editing, in which I address the controversial topic of whether you should proofread your work by reading it aloud:

Remember that the point of proofreading is to catch errors and to improve your use of language. It is not meant to be fun. It is not meant to be entertaining. It is not meant to give you another opportunity to glory in the magic of your prose, which I suspect is sometimes the true reason people read their work to themselves. You’re not supposed to be rehearsing for your first book reading. You’re supposed to be perfecting your work.

In his book on writing, David Morrill, a writer I respect enormously, argues strongly against reading your work aloud when proofing or editing. His argument is that when you read work aloud, you can “improve” it subtly or subconsciously by using vocal inflection, speeding or slowing your pace, perhaps even adding facial expressions you see with your mind’s eye. These are all ways of sweetening the text that do not exist on the printed page.

I agree with David. Your readers will not have the benefit of your vocal mastery. They must read it silently to themselves based upon what is actually on the page. Therefore, the only reliable way to edit is to attempt to reproduce the experience of your future readers—by reading it silently to yourself. Try to forget all your authorial insight into who these characters are and where the plot is headed. Read it remembering only what has actually appeared on the page so far—and see if it works.

Now if we were talking about poetry, that might be a little different…

Writing Dialogue “Off-the-Nose”

DialogueOne of the hardest aspects of writing for me to grasp was the idea that characters shouldn’t always say exactly what is foremost in their mind. After all, we don’t always do that in real life, right? Often we beat around the bush, or make elliptical comments designed to elicit information without asking for it, or make provocative suggestions hoping for a revealing response. The cliche about “the elephant in the room” reflects that often what is not being said is paramount, not the trivia that is spoken.

The preference for off-the-nose dialogue is much like the preference for showing rather than telling. When a character says, “I’m sad,” it seems obvious and, frankly, boring. The savvy writer will use an off-the-nose comment which, coupled with what the reader already knows and perhaps a bit of suggestive action, reveals the character’s true thoughts. Yes, the reader has to work a bit, but they always do in more profound works, and that causes the reader to have a more profound literary experience.

Here’s an example from my book Dynamic Dialogue:

Beth peered over the rim of her coffee cup. “I think maybe this year we shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.”

Her husband did not look up from his newspaper. “I thought you loved putting up the tree. You always make such a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anyone cares but me.” She took a long drag from her mug. “Especially now that the kids are gone.”

“What about the stockings? The Christmas lights.”

“I can do without them, too.”

“The wreaths? The crèche?”

“Why bother? Better to make a clean sweep of things.”

He laid down his paper. “And me?”

She held the mug in both hands, treasuring the warmth.