Friday, September 21, 2012

Reading Your Work Aloud--Whether You're Sharing with a Group, a Big Audience, or Just Yourself, Some Tips on Why Reading Aloud Helps You

Many years ago, when my books were first being published, I took a class on reading my writing aloud. 

It was taught by a television actor from California.  He was a wonderful teacher, funny and engaging, and he got us introverted writers right up out of our chairs. 

He spoke about basic "reading aloud" tips like good breath control and how to pause, but the most important take-away was passion.

"You have to love what you're reading," he said.  "Without passion for your work, your listeners will never really get why they are listening.  Read it as if it's fresh, exciting, and enjoyable to you."

A very basic guideline yet one that writers often miss.  We know our work so very well, and we see all the hiccups and stumbles.  It's hard to read it as if we are fresh to it, excited, and enjoying the story ourselves.  We're mostly worrying about whether anyone else is liking it!

I've given lots of readings over the years, during book tours and on television and radio interviews.  This bit of advice has been very helpful when I choose my excerpt to read aloud and when I practice.  In my practice time if I don't feel any passion for the story, it's not the right piece to read. 

This week's blog is all about the basics of choosing, as well as how to find that passion again, so your reading will be inspired and inspiring. 

We'll also explore the benefits of reading aloud to yourself--what you can learn from this technique used by so many pros.

How to Choose What to Read
Pam from Saint Paul wrote me a great question--one I get often from writers who are beginning to share their work. 

"I have such a hard time reading my writing in front of a group of people because I get so emotional," Pam said.  "I write creative nonfiction from the heart about my very colorful family and their lives and when I read my work I start to cry. . . my emotions get the best of me."

I really understand this.  I found that time and practice helped me not break down in front of my listeners, even when I was reading intense passages.  But I also know that the urge to cry--or any strong feelings--while reading my work is a good sign that the passion and meaning are very present for me.

But composure while reading is important.  If you're sobbing, you can't really communicate words.  So here are some tips:   

1.  Practice reading aloud at home, and choose a passage that's not as emotional for you.  Build your strength.

2.  Select an excerpt that has a beginning, middle, and end, if possible, to give the listener a complete experience.     

3.  If you're reading a scene with an important cast, will listeners be able to tell who's who without alot of asides (deadly to reading) or explanation?  The listener really just wants to be immersed in the "dream" of the story, not have a side conversation with the author.  So pick something that can stand on its own without too much from you.

4.  Time yourself when you practice at home.  Open-mike readings are short, not more than 5 minutes usually.  Book tour readings can be up to 30 minutes.  And when you're reading to your writers group or class, you may get 10-15.  I usually gauge about 2-3 minutes per double-spaced page, at average speed.

5.  Read slowly and pause.  When I was reading my work on radio interviews, I'd write LOW AND SLOW at the top of the page--keep my voice low rather than squeaky, and read slowly.  Slow allows listeners to actually hear what you're reading.  Fast reading makes you sound nervous, as if you're trying to get through it.

6.  Breathe.  Take pauses.  I'd mark pauses on my pages with yellow highlighter.  If you're reading a humorous excerpt, you'll especially need pauses for your audience to (hopefully) laugh.    

7.  Smile as you read.  This helps so much.  It gives you surprising confidence, and it'll communicate this ease to your listeners.  They'll relax and enjoy your writing so much more if they're not worried about you! 

Rewriting Your Excerpt for a Reading
This sounds odd, but many professional writers actually edit or rewrite their excerpt for a more successful reading.  Especially if there's a time limit, you may be able to skip through whole paragraphs--even pages--that don't contribute to the excerpt you're sharing.

When I did readings for my novel, Qualities of Light, I chose an important section between the two main characters, Molly and Zoe.  But the pages I wanted to read also included references to an earlier scene that was confusing.  I photocopied the pages for the reading, then x-ed out the passages from the confusing scene.  Result:  Much smoother experience for my audience.  (I'm guessing that's true based on how many books I sold!)

The best way to learn how to read your work aloud--and not fall apart with emotion or nervousness--is to take a class in public speaking or an acting class that focuses on reading aloud, or attend readings by other writers.  Most bookstores, writing centers, and colleges offer readings.  Get a calendar of events and go to them.   Listen to how the authors read aloud, and learn from their mistakes and successes.

Bonus Benefits to Your Writing   
Reading aloud is a technique I've used for years to better "hear" my own writing.  You can catch all sorts of pacing errors when you hear your work, compared to when you're just reading it silently.  The ear hears the rhythms and the pauses that are needed.  The writer can edit the piece to match the best rhythm.

At revision, or even with early drafts, I read aloud to myself.  I like to get comfortable in a cozy chair, make sure everyone is out of the house (or out of hearing distance), and have a yellow highlighter in hand.  I read slowly, as if an audience was listening, approximating average reading speed.   

Whenever I get a "not quite there yet" feeling about a passage, I draw a mark in the margin with the highlighter.  I don't fix it just then.  (Very important!)  If I stop to edit, I lose the rhythm completely and have to start over.  Sometimes I'll allow myself a tiny note with the highlighter, such as MORE HERE where I've condensed too much.  But nothing else, no pauses to think of better ways to say it.  The marks will alert me that something's off, and I can come back and clean it up later.

I learn so much by reading aloud.  Here's an exercise to try it yourself, if you'd like.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Get a timer and a yellow highlighter.
2.  Find a very private spot where you won't be disturbed.
3.  Choose a section of your writing that you're not sure about--or one you love.
4.  Set the timer for 5 minutes and begin reading aloud.
5.  Time yourself.  Stop when the timer rings.
6.  Now, do it again, using the highlighter to mark any place you feel might not be necessary to the story--or the reading.  
7.  How was it easier or different the second time?  What did you learn about your writing?


  1. Great advice, Mary! I am launching my memoir, "Sting of the Heat Bug," later this year, and this will come in handy when I do readings. You helped edit and critique that memoir, and it's finally going to be out there!

  2. Great, Jack, I'll look forward to hearing more about your memoir. Congrats! Mary

  3. Well, I love that painting. And I wish had more time to read!

  4. Thanks, Levonne!

    Don't we all wish we had more reading time . . .