Just as a pilot who is skywriting has difficulty getting perspective on words written in the air, it’s difficult to see your own work on the page with a clear eye. You can hire a professional editor or pay a fellow writer, but a completely free and simple way to get another perspective is to read your work aloud. As Hermann Hesse said, “Everything becomes a little different as soon as it is spoken out loud.”
With our lightning fast texting and e-mailing we often press “Send” before we even re-read the words on the screen, and that unedited writing has seeped into our “real” writing as well.
Clarity is the most important thing in good writing, and sloppy sentences are being flung around the globe. Most of us are talking less on the phone, and replacing that sound with a scrambling of our fingers on the keyboard or thumbs on our smartphones. I have nothing against these new-fangled inventions, but they have muted our voices. We can cut and paste without scissors or glue, but we often have so many drafts and so often cannot remember which versions came first, that something is lost in the shuffle, making careful revisions even more important.
As writers we know we need to write every day or five days a week or whatever our self-imposed schedule is, and we all know the importance of reading, but we so often forget to read aloud, whether it’s the classics to loved ones or bedtime stories to children. The human voice is an essential tool for a writer. Print out your words, and then take them into the woods or to a mountaintop, or at least to another room. Read them aloud somewhere where you can really hear yourself, not in the subway or a crowded theater, but in a place where you can hear your own voice. And when you stumble, or rush the words, or begin to mumble, that is where you must use your pen and edit. You can read to your cat or your dog or pig, but there is always a risk of reading your work to a loved one who can speak because, let’s be honest, all you really want from them is to be told how wonderful your writing is.
When someone calls you on the phone and tells you a story or sits across a table from you and confides his or her woes, there is no script. You listen, intently if it’s interesting. But if your mind wanders, that’s what needs to be edited in a story.
Listening to spoken voices, to real dialogue, is a skill all writers need to hone, but listening to the written word is just as important.
I once had a student who was scared to read his work aloud, because he said he had never said the name of his lover aloud before, not since she had died thirty years before. He had only written three sentences, and I encouraged him to at least read those sentences aloud. He agreed, and as soon as he spoke his lover’s name, he burst into tears. After that he went home and wrote ten pages. The simple act of saying the name aloud opened up a closed world to him.
Read your work aloud and then read it aloud over and over. Read it and read it until the words sing off the page.