MFA Nugget: Reading Your Work Aloud

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: Do you read your prose aloud? If so, does it help you discover awkward turns of phrase, clunky transitions, or poor word choice? Since focusing on creative writing in the last year I have heard this advice often.

VCFA instructor Sascha Feinstein

I heard it most recently here at my residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, recommended by my workshop co-leader Sascha Feinstein, an accomplished poet, memoirist and critical writer. One of my classmates had a few shifts in tense in her prose. The essay moved back and forth in time, but the shift from past to present didn’t always correspond, or came at abrupt times. Those glitches would be easier to spot and fix in the revision process, Feinstein said, if she read it aloud.

So having heard this advice with some frequency over the last year, why haven’t I followed it? I embrace other forms of speaking. I spent ten years as a solo singer. I’ve given dozens of speeches in the last decade. I sign up for every student reading possible here. I was the Master of Ceremonies for the student readings last night, and will co-host the talent show tomorrow night. (I’ll be channeling my inner Chuck Barris, right down to a low-slung hat.)

Perhaps I think of that as performing, which I’ll confess gives me an adrenalin rush. Reading my prose aloud is a private affair. It also forces me to listen to my own words, and perhaps there’s some resistance there, particularly given I’m supposed to read my work while still in progress.

But because my art-committed path means being open to new possibility, I will start trying this. The walls are pretty thin in this dorm, however, so while here I think I will read softly to myself.

Do you read your prose aloud? If so, how does it help you?

ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous posts include “Illuminating Your Story,” “A Window on Your Narrator,” “Creativity and Wasting Time,” “New Year’s Tradition,” and “Storytelling vs. Fragmentation.”

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

23 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Reading Your Work Aloud”

  1. You’re co-hosting the talent show tomorrow? Oh, all of the ways I miss residency!

    As far as reading aloud, yes. It’s an integral part of my process. I catch awkward phrases that way – if I’m stumbling over the words as I read, chances are something needs to change.

    Also, I don’t have the patience to do this often, but to really sharpen the power and clarity of each sentence, you can try reading a piece from the *end* and work backwards. Because you’re cutting off the logical link from one sentence to the next, you can focus on sharpening each sentence itself. I catch a lot more grammar errors this way, too. For overall flow and strengthening the sing-song quality of prose, reading forwards is still the best bet, though.

    • So you read the last sentence, but first word to last word, then read the second-to-the-last sentence, first word to last word, etc? Not literally the last word, then the second-to-last word, etc.

      Yes, co-hosting the talent show; a lot of faculty have signed up! Good fun. I’m doing my renegade reading tonight.

  2. Not a fiction writer, but I definitely read my stuff out aloud. Because if I stumble over my own words, it doesn’t bode well for my reader! Another tip I got recently from the twitterverse – read your stuff backward. You’ll see your typos more clearly. That’s saved my toast a couple of times!

  3. I read less aloud than I could, but I find it so useful that I am teaching my kids to read their work out loud in hopes that I can help them build the habit.
    And the working backwards that others have mentioned was part of my editing process as a lawyer.
    Thanks for sharing these nuggets. I’m reading them all even when I am not commenting.
    Kate

    • Ah, I needed a mother who taught me this! And a third vote for reading backward.

      I’m glad you find them of value and are continuing to stop by. I’m rather surprised by my readership numbers, which are very high, and encourage me to keep doing these. I haven’t written many in the form of soliciting comments, frankly, so no shame in not having left one.

  4. Great post, Patrick. Yes, I read my work aloud. Rhythm, be it discordant or lyrical, is as important in writing as in music, dance, or the shapes and lines in a sculpture or painting. We were taught in our college 2D Art class that one of the best ways to analyze the effectiveness of a design is to turn a painting/drawing upside down. This forces the image–to varying degrees–out of emotional and visual context and increases the objectivity of analysis. Similarly, I think forcing the ‘read’ word into the ‘spoken’ word gives the writer a unique perspective to catch thought-blunders and oversights as well as rhythm-hiccups.

    I also agree with everyone above, reading backwards does magnify typos.

    Obey Feinstein. And here’s to Sonex Audio Tiles😉

    ~Terre

  5. Reading my work aloud helps me cut my writing to the bone. When I get bored, that’s where I cut.

  6. Thank you for this information. I am going to try this with what I write today.

  7. I read all of my work aloud. I listen for the awkward phrase, the missing word, the rhythm of the sentences, the pacing of the paragraph, weak verbs, unnecessary adverbs, repetition, and stilted dialog. It helps me “feel” the flow of the story and step more deeply into characters’ psyches.

    Aside from the process being a good editing tool, a lot of people first learned to read by sounding out words. When I was in elementary school, we read everything aloud until about third grade. Then we were taught “sustained silent reading,” reading without saying the words aloud, and we weren’t supposed to move our lips. But you have to remember that many people still read and “hear” the words in their head.

    My daughter once told me that if a stranger walked into my office while I was writing, he or she would think I was crazy!🙂

    • Hi Jeanne,

      You’ve definitely got it figured out, it seems, and I’m going to try to make this a practice of mine. I like the parallel to when we are children. And I love the image of the “crazy writer”!🙂

  8. I think reading one’s work aloud is absolutely vital to its forward progress. I always encourage my students to read their work aloud. First of all, it helps with editing. It’s like you have another pair of eyes working for you, especially if you’ve laid the piece aside for a few days. And in the midst of composition, I read things to myself, and aloud, to myself, and aloud again, really listening to the language. Of course, I am a poet, too, and perhaps that informs my process more than I know, but I have always read things aloud and as soon as i write something I love, I am usually scrambling to read it aloud to someone and see what they think.

    -rebecca

    godlikepoet.com

    • Hi Rebecca, thanks for this comment. I can imagine being a poet is a big influence there; the poets I’ve talked to here stare at me dumbfounded when I ask them if they read their work aloud!

  9. For longer pieces of fiction, I read my work aloud and record it so I can focus on the overall theme when I listen to the audio. The reading process also helps point out poor phrasing.

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