Monday, July 5, 2010

The Best Advice (on Writing) That I Ever Got, Part I

This begins a week of posts sharing the best writing advice we've gleaned.

Years ago, a crabby high school English teacher forced us students to stand read our written compositions out loud. Boy, did I ever hate that exercise. I remember sounding like a fool and feeling totally tongue-tied.

I hated that exercise so much that I repressed that suggestion until Elaine Viets mentioned it to a group of us aspiring authors at SleuthFest. She explained that she once narrated one of her own books for audio tape. In the process, she found several places where her prose wasn't as smooth as she'd thought. (And yes, I mumbled this paragraph to myself several times, trying to get it right. As a result, I made several key revisions.)

I figured if reading out loud was good enough for Elaine Viets, it would be more than helpful for me. And it is.

When you read your work out loud, you are forced to hear any awkward construction. Your voice will falter if your punctuation is off. You'll stumble over nonsensical phrases. You will also catch left out words, so the exercise doubles as a great proofreading opportunity.

Most of all, your dialogue will improve dramatically.

When you read your dialogue out loud, you discover your poor characters are talking like stilted statues at a cheap amusement park. Oh, my gosh. This has to be one of the most humiliating procedures ever!

And yet, from that embarrassment comes instant and constant improvement. My motto is, "If I can't say it, one of my characters won't either."

If I had one idea to bequeath to any writer, I'd say this, "Read your stuff out loud. Don't just mouth the words. Give your work the voice test. Better yet, ask someone else to read your work to you. That way you can't fudge by acting out the piece."

It's a simple idea. It's easy to ignore. But the results are just incredible. Try it!


Betty Hechtman said...

The last time I was in a writer's group, the rule was you couldn't read your own work. There is nothing like a cold read by someone else to really see what you've got.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

That's a great idea. One woman in our writers group was a part-time actress, so when she read her work, it wasn't really like a true reading at all.

Camille Minichino said...

I'm always amazed, and chagrined, when I read my work out loud.
Now I'm going to try having someone else do it. Definitely good advice!