word craft


Reading my work out loud

In a review of the recent­ly pub­lished book, A Mis­cel­lany of Advice and Opin­ions by C. S. Lewis, the author of “The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia,” is quot­ed as offer­ing this advice to would-be writers: 

“1. Turn off the radio. 2. Read all the good books you can and avoid near­ly all mag­a­zines. 3. Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sen­tence you write as if it was being read aloud or spo­ken. If it does not sound nice, try again.” 

That was, appar­ent­ly, writ­ten in 1959. Sub­sti­tute “inter­net” for “radio,” and it’s still great advice. 

It also fits nice­ly with what I recall (cor­rect­ly, I hope) Stephen King sug­gest­ing: “You don’t know a writer until you hear him/her.” 

And while I’m at it, I might as well add this advice from the 5th Cen­tu­ry (BC) Greek philoso­pher, Dio­genes: “We have two ears and one tongue so that we would lis­ten more and talk less.” 

My edi­tor of many years, Richard Jack­son, once told me he read (out loud) all the man­u­scripts he worked on. I have no doubt it con­tributed to his enor­mous success. 

I am a believ­er that the best way to teach young peo­ple how to write (and read) is to read to them out loud. It is also—as per the above—the best way to improve your own writing.

Reading out loud to classroom

As I have writ­ten here before, part of my writ­ing process is to always read my work out loud. I first read the text to my wife. Then I like to read drafts to a class of students—the peo­ple for whom I am writ­ing. When I do these read­ings I do so with a pen in hand. When I come to a spot that makes me wince, shake my head, or just think “that’s wrong,” I mark the page, and at the first, (quick) oppor­tu­ni­ty revise the writ­ten page. 

As any­one who reads or lis­tens to poet­ry knows, the choice of words, the sequence of words, the flow of words, and the sound of words mat­ter. We some­times for­get that those sounds pro­vide sub­tle (but potent) meaning. 

One of the most sat­is­fy­ing times in my writ­ing life was when I was part of the Authors Reader’s The­atre. Work­ing with Sharon Creech, Wal­ter Dean Myers, and Sarah Weeks, (among oth­ers) we per­formed sec­tions of our work before live audi­ences. The inter­play between the writ­ers, the audi­ence, and the words was pal­pa­ble and won­der­ful­ly sat­is­fy­ing, often moving. 

readers theater
Read­er’s the­ater with Sarah Weeks, Sharon Creech, Avi, and Wal­ter Dean Myers

Even when I was doing solo read­ings of my work—in a con­cert setting—I would learn about my work—what made it work, and what made it not work—even as I performed. 

To those of you, teach­ers and librar­i­ans, even if you are just read­ing to your kids at home, I have a sug­ges­tion: take voice lessons. (I did) Learn the rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple tech­niques of speak­ing, pac­ing, breath­ing (as you read), artic­u­lat­ing, plus much more. 

Just the oth­er day I was in the process of sub­mit­ting a new book to my edi­tor. I must have revised the first page a hun­dred times. Sure­ly I did that for the first sentence. 

Still, tru­ly moments away from push­ing the “send,” but­ton I read out the open­ing line of the book yet again. 

It didn’t sound quite right. 

So, I changed it. For the better. 

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