Skip to main content

When You Shouldn't Read Your Work Out Loud

Revision is a bitch. I'm plugging away on Draft 7 of my WIP and it totally seems like a one-step-forward, two-steps-back endeavor.

But there are tools that writers use to help during revision hell. Critique groups give valuable feedback. Outlining the plot chapter by chapter helps figure out pacing. Another tool writers use is to read their work out loud.  It helps them catch clunky dialog and awkward phrasing.

But I want to put a big ole caveat on the "reading your work out loud" advice. Don't get me wrong. I think reading your work out loud is great advice. But not always.

I have a writer friend who was frustrated after a critique. Someone had slammed her dialog and suggested she read her work out loud. The thing is, my friend had read her work out loud. She felt insulted and hurt that she was already doing what she was "supposed" to be doing and it didn't seem to help with her dialog.

I have a theory why reading out loud wasn't working for my friend. It's a little thing called "line reading."

Line reading is what actors do when they take what's on the page and make it their own. It's their interpretation of what the writer intended for the character at that moment.

There is no better explanation for what a line reading is than this montage from Seinfeld:

"These pretzels are making me thirty" is a throwaway line. But it's given a different intent each time it's said. That's a line reading.

It's the director's job to guide the actor to a line reading that fits with the character, the scene, and the overall vision of the work.

So taking that to writing and reading your work out loud, I think my friend was being an actor and giving a line reading that made sense in her head. She gave the dialog a tone, an inflection, an emotion that's only there when she reads it out loud.

But that line reading didn't make it to the page. That's why when other people read it, they felt the dialog was clunky. She forgot to be a director and consider the character, the scene, and the overall vision of the work. She didn't have the narration or the character development to make the line reading in her head be the line reading that everyone would naturally come to.

If you find that you're getting negative feedback with a particular scene or chapter, and you've read it out loud a million times and can't figure out what's wrong (because it sounds fine to you), then there are a couple things you can try.

The first one is get someone to read it out loud for you. They don't have to be an actor, just someone willing to give you a half hour or more to read out loud. Don't let them read it beforehand. You get the best results with a "cold reading," which means they're reading it as they're seeing it for the first time. That's when they'll stumble over words and hesitate and repeat themselves. That's EXACTLY what you want. Because that shows you trouble spots you've probably been zipping past because of the line reading in your head.

You'll also find that they may give a different line reading than you've expected. I've had this happen before at table reads (where a cast sits together and reads through the whole script). This is great. Because you'll find that they bring something fresh and unexpected to it or they'll get it completely wrong and you realize you need to rewrite that bit.

The other thing you can do is have your computer read it. Word has a voice feature which reads text. Sometimes a flat, computerized voice is the most objective voice and you'll discover all the extra words and clunky phrasing you've otherwise missed.

What are some of the tools you use during revisions? Would love to hear some new tips!