Reading aloud

by Suw on September 23, 2009

I have always loved to read aloud. (I think it’s something to do with loving the sound of my own voice. Arf.) When I met Kevin, I was delighted to find out that he likes reading aloud too, so we frequently read to each other before we go to sleep. I love it. It’s a great way to relax before nodding off.

But reading aloud (and listening) also changes one’s relationship with a book. I can skim a tedious book when I’m reading silently, but reading aloud forces each word into the spotlight. For some books, that’s a wonderful thing. For others it’s the worst thing you can do to them.

Two of my favourite authors are Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Both of them write books that are a joy to read aloud. Sentences flow off the tongue. Scenes hold your attention. Chapters leave you wanting more.

Reading aloud takes a longer than reading in my head, so I have a lot more time to consider what I’m reading. When you’re reading a good book aloud you can savour the atmosphere for longer. When you’re reading a bad book aloud, every flaw is like a slap to the face with a wet haddock. You can’t escape tedious, run-on sentences because you have to say every damn word in them. Unpronounceable names trip you up and constantly repeated tropes become exasperating.

Some of the worst books I’ve ever read have been probably made worse by the fact that I read them aloud. Neal Stephenson’s Cobweb, written with Frederick George, gets the medal for Worst Book Ever. It is tedious in the extreme with excruciatingly long sentences and scenes that just don’t make sense. Kevin and I didn’t even make it to the end of the book. The killer was a scene in which the main protagonist was playing American football, running with the ball down the field whilst having a flashback which not only went on for so long you forgot it was a flashback, but also revealed the death of a key character. In a flashback. Honestly.

As we progressed through the book it became clear that there were two voices. I would hazard a guess and say that the really, awfully dreadful bits were written by George, with the more interesting pacey stuff written by Stephenson (they seemed more like the other books of his I’ve read). But as we read, I became decreasingly interested in finding out what happened next and it got to the point where I was actively avoiding reading. We called time-of-death at page 280.

The worse series of books I’ve read aloud were – and god, I know you’re going to hammer me in the comments for this – His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The first, The Golden Compass, was ok, but I wasn’t thrilled by it. As the books went on, though, I found it harder and harder to read them out. Again, clumsy writing that tripped your tongue and multi-clause sentences frequently forced me to reread bits, often more than once, until I could figure out where the stresses were and what the hell he was trying to say.

Add to that characters I found it hard to sympathise with, affected speech that was very distracting and a level of preaching not seen since the last time I was (oh the irony) in church and you have a deeply unsatisfying read. Pullman’s pomposity is second to none and I found, at times, the only way to get through it was to put on a silly voice. Or take a break and read something else.

We did at least finish His Dark Materials, even if we only finished the third book through an monumental effort of will. Having invested so much time in the other two, I wanted to know how things ended. Annoyingly, it turns out. I just pray that they don’t try to turn the whole trilogy into films.

I don’t think either Cobweb or His Dark Materials would have felt so bad if we weren’t reading them out aloud. I probably would have just speed-read them and not bothered about missing any minor details. They would have remained bad books, but they wouldn’t have been such painfully bad experiences.

Just for contrast, we went straight from Pullman to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. And boy, what a contrast. It was so easy to read that often we’d find we’d been reading for an hour or more. This was “Oops, you do realise it’s 1am?” territory – a place I’ve only ever been on my own, never with another coming along for the ride. The Graveyard Book is a lyrical, joyful read. The words follow one another naturally and easily. And it was over far, far too soon.

All this to say… no matter how long it takes, no matter how raw your voice gets in the process, read your book aloud before you publish it. It’s a really great way to get a different perspective on what you’ve written and to, quite literally, stumble over problematic phrasings. Reading your book aloud should be a fabulous experience, not purgatory.

Kay Sexton September 23, 2009 at 7:45 pm

I’m not sure reading your work aloud increases your chances of publication, because there are many who love the convoluted Faulknerian multi-clause sentence, and most of them seem to be editors. But reading your work aloud should make you a better writer, that’s for sure.

As an aside, and worryingly, your captcha is ‘Pakistan beware’ – beware of Pakistan or Pakistan should beware what (apart from Al Queda)? Portenteous stuff for a bot-spotting device

SirBenfro September 23, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I find that reading dialogue aloud is the only way to avoid terrible howlers, but I’ve never really tried reading a whole book that way. I get too many strange looks from the dogs. Still, Stuart MacBride swears by it too, so maybe I’ll give it a try.

(and now the captcha is ‘of parsed’ which seems kind of apposite.)

Suw September 23, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Kay, I’m not assuming that it increases your chance of publication, but I do believe that it exposes flaws in writing that might go unnoticed when you just read it over silently. I’m sure some editors love those complex multi-clause sentences. Personally, they’d be the kind of editors I’d prefer to steer clear of!

SirBenfro, yes, reading dialogue aloud is a good way to make sure it works but I’ve certainly found it helpful to read out the rest too. It can be hard to find the time and the peace and quiet required, but it’s always highlighted other problems for me too.

Loving the reCaptcha portents, btw. Perhaps this is a whole new field of divination. Captchamancy, perhaps? I got ’06 cohere’ – perhaps a warning that six people, or six groups, will come together to achieve a common goal soon?

Kay Sexton September 23, 2009 at 8:52 pm

yeah, you’re right, but I always think in publication terms because it’s such a grail for so many. I love Pullman btw, although I’ve never tried reading him aloud. Did read many Pratchetts to the Rock God when he was small enough to be read to. I also read comics aloud, especially the sound effects, especially on trains – guarantees nobody sits next to me unless they are also a graphic novel fan.

I am resolutely NOT commenting on the captcha.

Suw September 23, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Publication used to be a grail for me and to some extent I suppose it still is in that I’d love to be published. But I’d rather be read and that’s a goal I know I can achieve, whereas being published is anyone’s guess.

Lots of people love Pullman. I got a lot of crap on Twitter for saying I thought his writing was awful. It’s mediocre at best. I have no idea how he has ended up getting so much adulation. Are we that starved of good fantasy in this country?

Amusingly, my reCaptcha this time is “court-ordered arizona” (all lower case). Is that the sequel to Raising Arizona?

ACW September 24, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Reading aloud to my wife is one of the comfortable, pleasurable constants in our thirty-year relationship. I can’t even remember all the books I’ve read to her, from classics to trash. I should write about it on my own blog.

Present reading: Infinity’s Shore, second volume of an SF trilogy by David Brin.

Captcha: attain chine. What is chine? I’m doubtful enough about chine that I’m going to recaptcha. OK, “virginia alcoa” is better.

Suw September 25, 2009 at 7:42 am

ACW, a ‘chine’ in the UK means deep gully formed by water. There’s a place on the Isle of Wight called Blackgang Chine. I suppose that must sound a bit strange to non-local ears! Supposedly it was named after a local smuggling gang. According to the dictionary on my Mac, ‘chine’ can also mean:

a backbone, esp. that of an animal as it appears in a cut of meat.
• a cut of meat containing all or part of this.
• a mountain ridge or arête.

to cut (meat) across or along the backbone.


the angle where the bottom of a boat or ship meets the side.

However, I had to look up alcoa. Not a word, but a company it seems!

Me, I’ve got another British placename – Denby, and a company/personal name, Nordheimer.

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