Read Your Draft Out Loud

I emailed a new novel to my agent two days ago. Done! Finished. At least for now. If she deems it saleable (with this one, at times I’ve wondered), she’ll want revisions, and so will my editor. All good. It’s part of the process. But for now that baby is off my plate. In their ballpark. I’m doing the happy dance, enjoying the luxury of every long exhale. Pfew.

The last thing I did before I hit SEND was read it out loud. A whole 300+ pages worth. It took days. My mouth went dry. I thought the exercise would be fairly quick and would result in a tweak here or there. But…

Wait. That line didn’t say what I wanted it to say. Wait, the cadence stopped flowing there. Too clunky. Wait, that paragraph didn’t follow from the one before it. Wait. I just used that word, so I can’t repeat it. Wait. If I were browsing books at my local indie, I wouldn’t keep turning these pages. Ahhhhh!

Reading the manuscript out loud was exactly what the draft needed. I ended up restructuring the whole novel. I now have a different opening scene (easy to do in Scrivener, just saying), but the new opener caused other chapters to fall away. It also meant my ending needed work because the new opener set up the protagonist’s conflict with his dad in a way that the previous one hadn’t. What began as a quick read-through of a manuscript I’d thought was finished turned into three weeks of revision.

It’s amazing what you hear when you read a manuscript out loud.

How can a piece sound so different out loud? Why doesn’t my brain pick up on the flaws during SSR (silent, sustained reading)? Years ago my nephew was diagnosed with an auditory processing problem, a diagnosis that helped my sister understand his style of learning (or his struggle to learn). Spoken language is just so different from the written word. Our brains process sound differently from the ways our eyes process text.

We all get the value of reading poetry out loud, but writers of novels don’t necessarily appreciate that prose can come across differently when spoken. I’m no expert in why there’s a difference. But I’m glad that I used my ears to detect what my eyes couldn’t. So much for rushing the manuscript to my agent. So much for rushing at all.

I’ve heard that J.K. Rowling apologized to her readers, saying she hadn’t been able to shorten the last few books in the Harry Potter series because she didn’t have time to edit them. The market was calling, and what the market wanted, the market got. Oh, to have Rowling’s problems, right? But for the rest of us—those with no pressure from the market—slowing down enough to read a manuscript out loud, start to finish, matters. Promise. (Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.) Read your manuscript out loud and you will hear it anew.

6 responses to “Read Your Draft Out Loud

  1. I’m finishing a revision with a June 1 deadline three weeks early precisely for this reason. Even though I’m not generally an auditory learner–which is why my spoken Portuguese is lagging way behind reading and writing–I find reading aloud valuable in terms of pacing as well as on the level of sentences and paragraphs. Congratulations on finishing your draft! I know your agent and editor will love it, and I look forward to reading the new novel when it comes out!

  2. Lyn – You’re so right about the pacing. When you read out loud, you hear it. Also, the out loud business caused me to insert new paragraph breaks and delete others. It was all about the flow (or lack thereof). I’m sure my agent and editor will want revisions, and I love that they will. They’ll pick up on stuff that I’ve missed, and will help me make it a better book. Now that that novel is off my plate, I’m catching up on other writing commitments. I’m still writing everyday, but my focus is on personal essays, blogs, etc. Once these are finished, it’ll be time to start a new novel. Hmmmm… All the best with your June 1 deadline!

  3. Congrats on getting your novel in the mail! That’s always an accomplishment. Crossing my fingers for you.

  4. Thank you! I can now say that I’ve written four complete novels. One has been published, two will never see publication, and the fourth is now in my agent’s hands. Pfew! My fingers are crossed, too.

  5. Meredith Davis

    Anne, I just finished a draft of my novel, and I agree wholeheartedly with the value of reading aloud. For me, it slows me down. I find myself reading my own words to myself and glossing over, “oh yeah, I got this part” and not paying attention. Reading out loud helps me notice what I can’t otherwise. I find myself reading aloud even in the drafting phase, before I’ve got it all done, to hear written dialogue or feel pacing. Bravo for turning yours in, I loved what I heard when we did our little writing retreat.

  6. Yes, yes, yes! Slowing down! That’s it. I can race through stuff so fast sometimes that I’m not really taking it in. And you, sister? Talk about fast! Hahaha. You said it. So true.

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