It’s safe to say that many writers feel that the voice inside their head is sufficient enough for evaluating one’s own work, or even the work of others. They often consider the act of reading aloud to be a ridiculous waste of time. I’ll be honest and say that was how I felt for a long time. It was only once I was forced to do it that I discovered this interesting new perspective.
When I was a fiction writing student at Columbia College Chicago one of the things we had to regularly do is read each other’s work aloud to the class. The teacher would choose someone’s work, read a passage from it, then pass it to one or two other students before giving it back to the author to read a final section. This exercise has multiple benefits, all of which will not only assist you in improving your work, but also in improving yourself as a writer and overall literary human.
The first benefit comes from hearing others read your work aloud. You are hearing your words come from someone else’s voice. This person is visually reading your words, processing them mentally, then bringing them out to your ears using their own tone, pitch, and inflections of speech. If they’re good at reading aloud (which I’ll discuss later), this will be a glorious awakening.
Success in strong character development and dialogue will have your reader portraying those voices well. Flowing setting descriptions will make the reader’s delivery flow just as smoothly. But if what comes out doesn’t sound right to you, don’t blame your reader straightaway. What can you do to make your story heard better? Was there some specific wording or sentence structure they stumbled on? Did a character’s dialogue not come across as authentic? Consider it an opportunity to improve the writing instead of blaming someone for not “getting it.” If it doesn’t sound right to your ears, it’s likely not going to sound right in anyone’s head other than yours.
A second benefit to this exercise comes when you read your own work aloud. You’ll gain the most when you read it to someone and get their feedback, but simply finding a hiding spot and reading by yourself will also be rewarding. The voice you speak with really is different than the one in your head. It takes more mental processing to read aloud; not only does your brain have to read the words on the page, but it also has to control the physical movements of speaking and manipulating your voice to match what is seen with your eyes. Do you find yourself stumbling on any wording? Are you able to portray your characters without forcing or exaggerating anything? If it sounded good, nice work. If not, revisit.
Lastly, one of the most surprising benefits I discovered is learning how to be a good reader. When doing these exercises in my classes, I didn’t realize that I was subliminally being taught the art of reading aloud. Though the teacher did tell us to occasionally look up at the audience, it was actually the act of bringing another writer’s work to life that encouraged me to be more expressive when reading aloud. As an extreme introvert I am often mortified by the prospect of speaking in front of a group, but this was one thing I have grown to enjoy. And it’s a skill I use daily when attempting to keep the attention of my five-year-old twins at story time.
Now go out and try it. If you’re in a writers’ group or have other writer friends, take turns reading each other’s work to the group so everyone can benefit. Print out a passage of your work, sit in a comfy chair, and read aloud to yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you can discover.