The read aloud test

David giving brief remarks

Hi everyone,

I was recently asked to talk about revising one’s work. My first response was to say that I always read my writing aloud to hear how it sounds outside of my head. But it’s not quite that simple. I don’t read the early drafts aloud for the same reason I don’t worry about spelling and punctuation until the final drafts. No point in spending the time on such issues when the piece is still in flux.

You’ve heard me say that the way I do it is to break down the revising process into two parts. First drafts, at least mine, are messy affairs filled with rambling, half-baked thoughts. I usually find myself cutting a lot of material that seemed brilliant when I slapped it down. Paragraphs or stanzas suddenly seem out of place or detrimental to the general flow. We’ve all been there. At this point the trick is to delete, rearrange, trim, and rethink. Not much to be gained from reading aloud yet. You may feel differently. I’m just talking about how I do it.

Rewriting comes after revising. It comes when I think my house is in order and I can focus on the actual writing itself. This is when reading aloud helps. I don’t always stand before a mirror but I do sometimes wander around the house with a script in my hand, reading and listening to the sounds, rhythms, and patterns of the new piece under development. The other day my wife came home from our gift store unexpectedly and caught me standing in front of a bathroom mirror wearing a hat and emoting with exaggerated expression. She said, “I thought you were talking to someone,” and I said, “I was.”

In this way poets and song writers share a common trait. We both need to hear our work. But the songwriter can stretch a vowel or squeeze a mouthful of consonants to fit the tune while the poet must strive to NOT do that. Instead we worry about how our lines scan for meter and work to make them smoother. Of if we’re at work on a free verse poem, we fret about falling into too much of a pattern and winding up with a neither here nor there effort.

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8 comments on “The read aloud test

  1. I just read another post about ‘hearing” the rhythm. Good to hear that you mess about for a long time before thinking the work is ready to read aloud. Love the story about your hat, “in the mood”!

  2. Thanks for this description. I esp love “But the songwriter can stretch a vowel or squeeze a mouthful of consonants to fit the tune while the poet must strive to NOT do that. Instead we worry about how our lines scan for meter and work to make them smoother.” That’s how I decide if I consider song lyrics poetry–if I look at them on the page and it works metrically for someone who’s never seen it, it’s excellent rhyming poetry. If not, it’s an excellent lyric (well, assuming I started out with someone’s lyrics I really like). I’m always a bit jealous of songwriters since they can cheat a bit!

    • Hi, Laura, and thank you for your comment. In my days of playing music, I had to stick to the beat in marching bands and concert bands and orchestras, but in jazz and Dixieland groups I could play with syncopation and loved it. I think that’s what singers do too.

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