Read-Aloud, Anyone?
Written by
Niki Tulk
February 2013
Written by
Niki Tulk
February 2013

In the days before Hurricane Sandy paid her violent visit last year, I sat down to perform a "final" read-through of my manuscript, prior to ensuring that it arrived safely in the hands of my Kickstarter supporters in time for Christmas. My husband suggested reading the whole thing aloud to him, and I happily agreed.

As I embarked on a more sonic journey through the writing -- after so long working with it on the page, or visually --  I found there was a plethora of issues to be grappled with! What began as a final pass very quickly became a detailed, agonizing, and deeply rewarding trek through my manuscript.

So what did I discover?

1. The "music" needed arranging: the rhythm, tonal quality, the where and when of repetition, how motifs were woven through (or not!) ... in placing the story in space and breath, the language moved for me in new ways, and this demanded a new form of editing/revision. I have Synesthesia (I might blog some other time on that!) so art (especially sound and language) for me tends to be fully dimensional. Hence as I read, the language had textures and colors, and that all had to be masterfully blended. As I read aloud, these elements at times clashed and bled into each other, often lacking artistic precision. The amazing thing was that I could not "see" or "hear" these jarring moments until the novel was spoken.

2. The character who mysteriously vanished after 30 pages. I am a firm believer in the idea that a story reveals itself to you, and so this sudden disappearance -- one that had been thus far remained undetected by two editors and an agent (let alone the author!)  -- took hold, and showed me that there was another aspect of my story that now needed to be discovered, and told. In doing so, it meant I had to face a wound I realized I had been protecting my character from. I had no choice but to dive in and feel the pain for her, then write her through it. Ouch. Tears over that one. And again, until spoken, this aspect was hidden.

3. Developing the motivation for the journey. Three quarters of the way through, I looked at my dedicated listener, and we both knew that we no longer believed the major decision the protagonist had made to go on her solo journey. We believed her emotion, but not that her reason. So again it meant delving back into the story, overturning ideas like stones and searching for things I had left behind. I found them, and then rewrote major sections, as well as adding new ones. This meant layering my character with more pain, which was hard, but she had to face her world and feel the fulness of it. And for her to do that successfully, I of course needed to take her there myself.

3. Adjusting punctuation. Finding the right moments for breath, and making them relatable across two different writing cultures - Australia and the USA have different ideas and usages of commas, and to find a balance between them was like needing to utilize a form of bilingualism. It compelled me to reach deeply into each sentence and be true to the breath and expression in it, regardless of the pulls between two ways of punctuating. And understanding that on each continent would be a person unhappy at some point, but ... c'est la vie.

So, Hurricane Sandy hit, and for those of us in Jersey (as elsewhere), this was a hard time. Then there was another house move, brought on by health concerns in the place we had rented that were causing illness and inability to work. And the read-aloud continued. It continued in the respite of staying in an isolated Maine farmhouse while Christmas snow thickened the ground and iced the edge of the sea. It continued through unpacking boxes and hosting visitors, and times where I have had to feel through the trauma my characters have needed to embody.

The Edit is nearly finished -- way past my Christmas deadline, but we're on track for a March 1 release. And considering March 2 is the birthday of the one who suggested I start this whole read-aloud in the first place, it seems an auspicious date!

I never imagined that reading aloud would take me the places it has, but I would now never trek my stories any other way. But next time I will bring a first aid kit, a warm sleeping bag, and the means by which to light fires to ease the darkness and cold.

And chocolate.

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  • Reading aloud the MS, either poetry of fiction, is always a tough process.   I usually leave it to the last moment, which should not be the case.  I sent in a short story recently and read it aloud to myself (not the best audience for focus) and found many minor and some major issues in the 5,000 word MS.   When I was hoarse, and there was a submission deadline, I said to myself "that's enough for now."  Will the story make it -- I have no idea, but I'm prepared to look at it again if it comes back.  I found that I often had a sense of something missing, but it could take a day or so or more to put a finger on just how to fix the problem.  

  • Niki Tulk

    Thank you for your generous words. What is your main instrument? (curious!) I think it is interesting that we can utilize many different "pathways" as editors of our own, and others' work. It is a good thing to celebrate these, and share them with others ... there is no one road to bringing out the truth in our work, eh!

  • V. Lynne Murray

    This is an outstanding article. I am a professional musician and so the music of the written word has always been in the forefront of all my work, especially of course, poetry, but also all the prose I have ever writen. As an editor I always read the manuscripts out loud and if they don't work, as you say, you can really hear it. And punctuation...yes, it must work as part of the music of the words. Thanks for eloquently sharing something that not everyone has thought about. Beautifully put.

  • Jeanne Nicholas

    I read mine out loud often to hear the pace and rhythm.  I also find many typo's where I've left out a small word like 'as' or 'the'.  When typing so fast I am writing what i think but don't necessarily catch everything in my typing (those damn fingers).  I found reading out loud showed me many different aspects of plot weakness and punctuation errors as well.  There is an old blog that I kind of laugh at

    Just one of many good tips you find about editing your own work.  Reading backwards is really great to find missing words.

  • Marigold Kim Sing

    My 93 year old mum, always an avid reader but now finding her eyesight a problem, has a friend come and read to her once a fortnight. she loves the way it becomes a shared exprience, quite different to reading to oneself. Perhaps  some of us could offer this as a gift to our elders or those who have other difficulties in reading for themselves. It might be a good place to get used to the sound of hearing ones own voice if speaking was a way we wanted to go. Just opened up a bit of advice to myself there!

  • Patricia Flaherty Pagan

    I often read aloud to myself (or my huband). I find it helpful to figure out when I want to pause thoughts vs. when I want to end them. It's very interesting that this method helped you make characterization changes. In writing groups or class, I prefer to have someone else read it aloud, though. Then I can hear what is really on the page and not just in my tone of voice. PS-I'm glad that it is common to read aloud at home; my house keeper thinks that it is weird when I do it :)

  • Annis Cassells

    I've used the reading-aloud method myself and also have recommended it for my writing students. It works. Thanks for sharing the changes that doing so led you to make.

  • Kerry Headley

    I always find things that need tweaking when I read aloud. It really reveals elements that need tending to. I am always trying to convince students to do this. It is shocking sometimes what huge holes become apparent when I read my work aloud.

  • Niki Tulk

    I hear you on the bravery aspect. I did my first public reading of excerpts from S & W for fellow MFA students in December, and it was terrifying! Thankfully they cheered heartily, which was a huge relief, but there certainly is a vulnerability in literally putting the words into space, and hearing their music with others. I am learning to enjoy the "false notes" as well as the true ones, though, and see them all as part of the creation process,I keep remembering that it is all meant to be fun! ;-)

  • Sue Barsby

    I read the first part of my book aloud for the first time to my writing group a few weeks ago and saw as I was reading which bits needed changing. Luckily the feedback from the writing group confirmed the same thing. It's strange, the difference it makes, and yet you have to feel brave (or have an empty house) to actually read everything out loud. Isn't it strange though?

  • Gina Roitman

    In my first year as an editor and writing coach, the most effective tool I found is getting my clients - all first-time writers of mostly memoir - to read their work out loud.  It allows me to address the areas that need work while the words are still ringing in the writer's ears.  It is an excellent way for any writer to catch  inconsistencies, ticks, and gaping holes in plot or logic. 

  • Niki Tulk

    Hi Victoria, I will have to check out that Adobe function ... sounds amazing! Peace.

  • Victoria Grant

    This is so enlightening, especially the part about writing for two different cultures. Who knew?

    I made a habit of reading my work aloud, but eventually discovered I read some of the words/sentences the way they were supposed to read -- not as the actually read. A writers site suggested using Adobe Reader's Read Out Loud feature. It's been awesome for me. Now I have an unbiased reader any day or night that I desire.

  • Niki Tulk

    I wish I knew how to comment on each one of your wonderful and inspiring comments one by one ... it is heartening to read that others traverse the same ground, and also the capacity for the literal "raising of our voices" that is integral to fine-tuning our work. That seems right somehow, considering our pre-writing ancestral storytelling ways. Maybe it's connecting to that part of our brain that triggers our eyes to see more in our work than we could do simply by, well, using our eyes! I wonder ...

  • Niki Tulk

    Thank you so much Jenni, and I am with you on the images that bring us to tears. One of the wonderful things about writing "cross-culturally", as it were, is that there is so much that connects us ... so I suppose what are a few errant commas amongst the global writing family? ;-)

  • Jenni Ogden Writing

    Moving and insightful post Niki. Thank you. I agree it is tricky writing for different English-speaking cultures, especially if one of them is Australia or NZ and the other the US. Word meanings can be so different as well. But perhaps the images that bring us to tears are the same (not sure about laughter though; our humour can be very different!)

  • Kasey Arnold-Ince

    Wonderful insights, Niki!  I make my living business writing--and I ALWAYS read aloud as the last step. It started as a way to deal with situations where I didn't have a "clean set of eyes" to proofread before sending materials to the printer but, like you, I found that it showed up rocky bits, shifts in tone and voice, and places where the logic of what I'm saying may not be as clear to the audience as it is to me. 

    And for creative projects, this tool--the read-aloud--is key. I may be biased, coming from a background in film and theatre, but your article really confirms it.

  • Marigold Kim Sing

    Synchronicity - I just love it! I noticed today that I wanted to read aloud what I have so far written in my own 'write 50,000 words in a month' challenge. Actually the challenge is not in the numbers for me - it's in putting my thoughts into a structure, including a beginning and an end. Sometimes I think one day I may end up simply speaking my work so that it is received 'straight from the horse's mouth' as opposed to via the written word - or the editing process. But then I'm not a novelist. Really interesting to hear people's comments on your post too Niki!

  • Jo-Ann Mapson

    Glad to hear discussion on this because you're exactly right, Nikki.  I teach in an MFA program, and have students read their work aloud in workshop for exactly the same reason.  Writing is hard and such a long process it's tempting to skip this step.

  • marianna crane

    I am always surprised what I hear when I read out loud. Most times it means I need to change a word or phase. Something I would never pick up reading my work with my eyes only. Makes a difference.

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Add me to the "tweeted" list.

  • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

    Hi Niki:  This is so validating.  I have always felt a little sheepish about my need to read-aloud to myself as part of my editing process.  For all of the reasons you state, and more, I find reading aloud helps me to experience the story as a reader might and it alerts me to snags in the language, pace, and especially the authenticity of the dialogue.  

    Thanks much for this article.  I tweeted it out right away!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Niki, just finishing that last (oral to paper) draft is a tale in itself. Absolutely wonderful of your husband to volunteer to listen. At that seemingly final stage, for you to muster the energy to do an entire read of the book orally shows dedication to say the least. For me it was exciting to read your honest list of revisions.

    I look forward to your post on synesthesia. Have you read Born On A Blue Day?

    Your cover is beautiful.

  • Peg Herring

    I, too, have learned that I HAVE to read it out loud. I have a computer program that will read, which saves my voice and lets me listen and think about what I'm hearing. It's amazing how I can even pick up a missing comma from it. It takes time, but as you said, it's so very worthwhile.

  • Patricia Robertson

    I tell my students to read their papers out loud yet for some reason I resist doing it myself!  Good article to get me over myself and get me reading outloud.  Also like suggestion of having someone else read your work out loud to you, only problem is finding someone with the time to do so.