Reading aloud – not just for kids

My kids still love being read to. Even the 13-year-old. They’re perfectly capable of reading books for themselves these days – and do, voraciously – but there’s still something wonderful about the ritual of reading together.

Picture books are designed to be read aloud, and the best, like Julia Donaldson’s, have a music and rhythm in the words that’s irresistible as you read. They’re also memorable: we’re way past A Squash and a Squeeze now but I can still pretty much recite the whole book from memory (i just tried). 

With the chapter books we read now, though, there are occasional moments when I stumble as I read. Sometimes it’s a clumsy repetition, or a bit of dialogue that doesn’t reveal it’s a question until the end when it’s too late to inflect corretly, or even a typo or grammatical error. There’s something about reading aloud that exposes the writing in a way that skimming it silently in your head fails to do. 

And that’s why it’s so helpful (and occasionally excruciating) to read your own writing out loud. This is a great technique to use at any time, but particuarly towards the end of the editing process, when the text is pretty much there and you’re happy with the structure and stories you’re using to make your points. 

Here are just a few of the issues I’ve discovered for myself when I read my own writing aloud, in addition to the more obvious issues such as typos and grammatical errors: 

  • I’ve lost the tone. There’s a tendency when you write to use big words and a more formal register, and only when you read it back do you realise you sound like a pompous twit. Better for you to discover that now and fix it than to hear it from your readers. 
  • I overuse some words. This will not come as a surprise to regular readers. ‘Lovely’, ‘great’, ‘really’, ‘just’ – in most cases they simply need to come out altogether because they don’t add anything, but in any case there’s not excuse for three in one paragraph. 
  • I’ve lost the point. The sentence might have known exactly where it was going when it started out, but then it took a detour and never recovered. Reading aloud forces me to notice that I’ve left the idea unfinished.
  • It just doesn’t sound right. I’m fairly clued up on the mechanics of language, what with having a degree in English Language and 25 years of experience as a publisher, but you don’t need any of that to know when something just sounds wrong. Native English speakers know massively more about their language than they could ever put into words. You know how to order adjectives, for example (quantity, quality, size, age, shape, colour, nationality, qualifier: eg ‘the last lovely big old square dark-brown French writing desk’) but I bet you couldn’t explain why. If it sounds wrong to you, it will sound wrong to your reader, so go with your instincts. 
  • The pace is wrong. Usually it’s too slow or there aren’t enough breaks, and I go back and take out words and add full stops and paragraph breaks until it feels friendlier and more natural. 

Try it, and see what you see.