Speak Up: On The Importance Of Reading Out Loud

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Reading out loud will make you a better writer. You probably know this already, but I just had to say it. It’s certainly an attention grabbing first sentence, isn’t it? Or, it would have been, had the 'importance of reading out loud' not been smack dab in the middle of our little headline up there. But it is. And so it is. So should you read the following out loud? There’s nothing and no one stopping you, so give it a spin. I can promise that it’ll sound okay at best and will probably act as a rather fine lesson on how not to ramble.

Now why would I want to write about this subject? Especially if you and I already know it’s an important one? What kind of epiphany toppled out of my chestnut noggin that made me want to share? As with anything truly good and interesting, my own feelings around the subject have been a long time coming, and well, also always there.

We all remember being read to at bedtime by a parent or sibling or babysitter. Many of us had story time in preschool or kindergarten. Those of us in writers groups either dread or delight in reading out loud when we sit with our peers to suss out new material. And for those of us that are screenwriters, we know it’s a hard and fast rule to always try your dialog on for size. All these things are very well and good across our development as creatives. But what really made me take a step back and consider when and where and especially how we read out loud started with something else entirely.

How can you get someone else interested in your stories if you yourself sound bored by them?

Our scene is any bookstore or cafe, museum or some such institution. The event, why, it is a reading. There is our writer dolling out a sample of their latest work and, well... it sounds rather dull, doesn’t it? There’s nothing that draws us in. Their voice is flat like a step, monotone... more monotone than Steven Wright. There’s no color. There’s no inflection. Now I am not asking for melodrama here, or over enunciation, but I am asking for some sense of passion, even if it is deadpan. My point is, I have walked into more readings this year and been disinterested in what the writers are sharing because of the lifeless way they read their work. How can you get someone else interested in your stories if you yourself sound bored by them? Now perhaps what I am hearing as disinterest is just the sound of a writer’s nerves. They are, after all, a writer, and stage fright is a beast not easily tackled, but that to me is all the more reason to practice.

Perhaps then we should start with someone else’s stories.  

This past summer I began to reread one of my favorite books, Philip Pullman’s fantasy adventure The Golden Compass. But this wasn’t just any revisiting. I was reading the book out loud to Jack, a youth who I used to be a 1:1 aide to during and around school. Reading to Jack the adventures of one Lyra Belacqua brought along voices and accents, a spirited rhythm and cadence that ebbed and flowed from a certain knowing delight as the narrator into the proper mood of terror and intrigue that a story like Lyra’s called for. Now, not all writers are going to write like Pullman and inspire as such, but this got me thinking about how we share reading with others, and how it has to start with us reading out loud by ourselves, and especially reading our own work in this way.

Of course, not all writing, including some of the very best, is really meant to be read out loud, but I find that utilizing this practice helps me in myriad ways to become more aware of what I say in my own work and how to best frame it. Authors like Pullman are indubitably meant to be read out loud. I find reading the dense philosophy of Slavoj Žižek out loud actually helps me break down some of his ideas and concepts into much more manageable chunks. So we can be very serious in our reading, or even mocking or silly, because after all it is just a practice. Again, we come back to the idea of cadence, really of pitch, like in singing. Practicing our scales helps us refine those muscles and arc our intentions both in their immense and miniature forms: as a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, because it all has to flow somewhere.

Not all writing has to be witty or splendidly curt or clever in form. Not all writing has to be filled with an exuberance and emotion that makes you want to read out loud. We are, after all, not all beat or slam poets (and that’s a very good thing), but I am tired of this lifeless delivery when it comes to reading out loud. Be deadpan in your delivery, be depressed. Find the subtleties. Find the nuances. Yes, please be serious, dead serious. Make us feel it fully and completely, then break it down and makes us feel empty. But don’t sound disinterested while doing it.

Maybe this all sounds rather naive on my part. It’s quite possible that I just experienced a string of bad readings. Perhaps I am even breaking some decades old unspoken rule about reading out loud. But to hell with it, because I don’t want to sound like an academic bore and I don’t want you to sound like an academic bore. We are storytellers. We are at the frontier of the imagination, where we experience awe and wonder and dread and despair everyday. And we should sound as such when we share with others. So let’s start with ourselves, shall we?

Ben Umstead

Column by Ben Umstead

Born in New England, bred around the Capital Beltway, and schooled in the heart of Hollywood, Ben is the East Coast Editor at Twitch. He can once again be found wandering the streets of Los Angeles in the hopes of spotting the ghosts of Ray Bradbury, John Fante and/or Charles Bukowski.

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Comments

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick December 24, 2013 - 9:59pm

Interesting article, I've heard of this tip faintly some time ago, but I don't usually read it out loud unless I'm alone in my room.

I feel like Cormac McCarthy's books (Blood Meridian and the Road) and Jeff Lindsay's books (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) register deeply into the subconscious precisely because they don't have quotation marks. Just isolated sentences, where the line between thoughts and dialogue is blurred.

Here...

You know, these... violent and shocking scenes flash across your mind with more ease.

What do you think about the recitability of these works? (See here? I just realized the inflection marked by italics is another great benefit to come by when reading out loud!)

Ben Umstead's picture
Ben Umstead from L.A. is reading Speedboat by Renata Adler January 3, 2014 - 5:05pm

Now that's an interesting comment! Thanks for your insights. Very valid stuff. McCarthy especially. Have yet to read Lindsay, but I may have to now. So, now that comment about recitability... I can't say much about it myself since I am terrible at that. Which means more practice on that end, no?