28 March 2010

Reading Your Work Aloud

by Carrie Bailey

Do you remember in school when a teacher suggested you read your paper out loud to catch errors? Even if you don’t, you can be certain the teacher gave that advice to someone. We gripped our papers and belted out the product of our immature penmanship and stopped short as we mouthed a sentence nothing short of nonsensical.

Whoa! Did I write that? At least that was what I was usually thinking; it happened to me all the time. Read the work out loud and you catch errors. An important lesson from our formative years, but what if that same good habit has now made your writing shall we say ineffective? Or maybe it sucks even?

Let’s distinguish between the writer’s voice and tedious prose, which had been read aloud. They are different. The writer’s voice cannot be distilled from their written product. It refers to an inseparable element of style, your style. Each one of us combines syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, and dialogue uniquely in our work. All writing bears its maker’s mark and the effect: our writer’s voice.

When a reader recites a work out loud, their vocal inflections and pauses reflect their physical voice. For that reason, a poem such as Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven sounds distinct depending on the reader. It fails to impact equally when Christopher Lee blasts it in baritone as when your seven-year old cousin reads it for the first time. But there’s good news: you can develop your writer’s voice however you chose. Your physical voice you’ll just have to live with.

The problem arises when a writer grips page or computer screen and employs their physical voice to add flourish and nuance to their work. Then satisfied with how it sounded when they read it, they unwittingly proceed. To be effective writers, we must be aware that every reader varies in tones, inflections, and pauses when they orate. We can’t depend on how our work sounds when we read it audibly to ourselves. Avoid this grievous mistake by:
1. Have someone else read your writing to you
2. Imagine someone else wrote it as you read
3. Speed read it like you just don’t care
4. Impersonate someone else as you read it (Nixon or Betty Boop?)

But just awareness your of this common mistake will improve your writing.

If you have ideas for other ways to avoid this mistake or experiences with the physical voice drowning out your writer’s voice, please comment.


  1. It's fascinating to contemplate that my written words will be read aloud by each individual in a unique manner. Much like a musical composition will not sound quite the same when played by different musicians. In both the written word and the musical note we have variations as dictated by the manner in which it's read or played.

    We can only control 'what is said' but not 'how it is said' and the physical voice can change the intended written effect.

    After reading several of my short passages aloud, it came to my own thoughts that even I was not listening to me. How we hear ourselves is not how others hear us. Yes, I am referring to the dreaded experience of hearing one's self on the tape recorder for the first time.

    And perhaps this is another necessary tool of self-discovery. Hearing ourselves as others hear us via the tape recorder as a way to find balance between the physical and written voice.

    Great article.

  2. oooooh, I've done that for a play. I tape recorded my own work and found out that I have a very girly voice.

  3. Mmmmm, I have mixed feeling about this. I understand what you are saying but sometimes it's important to read one's work out loud to see if the rhythm flows or to check the sound of our writing. For example, a sentence may be grammatically correct but may not sound right when read. This may be especially true for dialogue.