Read your work out loud to find your voice

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 6 Comments

To rock your writing, read your words out loud — to yourself. Your most important audience will always be that Audience Of One. Over the years, I’ve used out-loud reading to transform myself and hundreds of students. But for even more proof of its value, I have tips from three bestselling authors. If we do as they say, we’ll get richer and more famous too.

I met these three big names at the Milford Readers & Writers Festival in Pennsylvania. On Oct. 1, they were the panelists speaking to a packed auditorium. What an interesting threesome. MK Asante is a rapper, filmmaker and memoirist. Everyone knows Gloria Steinem as the legendary feminist. Then there’s John Berendt, famous for a nonfiction book about a sleazy court case.

milford-writers-festival

It turns out that these writers are just like the rest of us. They struggle with words and self-doubt. During the Q&A segment, I reached for the mic and asked a question. What were their top tips for helping us to find our stories and voice? How to we get to confidence and believing in ourselves?

They talked for a while. And then, to my surprise, all three agreed that reading our work out loud is essential to the writing process.

Reading out loud exposes a lack of true voice

To find our voices, we have to HEAR our voices, literally.

“And it’s all about hearing that rhythm and stuff on the page cause I’m not gonna be in the room when they’re reading it, ” said Asante, author of “Buck,”  his 2014 memoir about growing up on Philadelphia’s mean streets as the rebellious son of African immigrants.

Asante learned the importance of reading out loud the hard way, after “someone asked me to read something that I had written, that I hadn’t read out loud. And when I read it out loud in a public setting, it was like — that’s not how I wanted it to sound!”

Out-loud reading showed him that sentences that looked great on paper can actually be awkward and boring to the ear.

Reading out loud manages our time & energy

Writers also benefit from feeling their own words coming out of their bodies, hearts and mouths.

“There is something visceral: you reading that aloud in your own voice,” said Gloria Steinem, now in her 80s. Clearly, the technique works because she’s had us reading her stories since 1963, when she wrote about going undercover as a Playboy bunny.

Steinem uses the reading strategy as part of a very specific writing routine. “I start out writing by hand and it is always way better and more economical,” she said. Eventually, she gets to the computer.

P.S. — I’d never seen this iconic woman in person before. She was so real and inspiring that I just bought “Life on the Road,” (2015) her tales as a traveling feminist, which is now available in paperback.

Reading out loud creates story structure 

The whole point of this reading exercise? Shaping a story that our audiences will care about, which means strong storytelling.

“I think that all writing, no matter how serious or funny, is an entertainment,” said Berendt, the third panelist and author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (1994), the tale of a Savannah, Ga. murder trial that became a hit movie.

The goal is to “seize the reader’s interest with how you shape the narrative, the progression of the narrative and how it spans.,” he said. “Think of the reader following you,” he said.

Reading out loud: our turn!

This semester, I’m working with a total of 78 students. They’re in four classes at three different colleges, covering three very different subjects: creative writing, public speaking and journalism. Only a small percentage dream of becoming professional writers. The rest will successfully carry this reading-out-loud skill into their personal and business lives.

In every single course, I have students who start the semester hating the sound of their own voices. As they read more, they begin to get over themselves, little by little. The out-loud reading also helps them hear when sentences are off, making it possible to instantly spot and fix typos as well as grammar and punctuation errors.

Meanwhile, I’m still practicing what I preach, too. It makes a huge difference, even in writing this post. And what about you? Have you discovered reading out loud? Does it work for you?

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Comments 6

  1. Bob Kappstatter

    Jimmy Breslin was generally a pain in the ass in the newsroom when I was at the Daily News, but watching him bang out a sentence or paragraph on an old Royal manual, them mumbling it out loud, taught me about the SOUND and BEAT and RHYTHM of words and sentences.
    I always tried to teach my budding Hemingway reporters to “write the way you talk.” They- or a good editor – can always polish it up from there.

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      betty ming liu

      Kappy, JB was such a horror show that I can’t even bear to write his name. But we all certainly learned so much at the News about the sound, beat and rhythm of conversational writing. That part of newspapering was such a great experience. Thanks for sharing the nostalgia. :)

  2. Toby

    Good writing is rather like a song in that it has tempo and rhythm. Just as one can’t tell if a song is any good unless one sings it, reading aloud is that testing process for writing. I’ve always done it but didn’t know it was a recognized technique!

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  3. Jen Kim

    Great post! I heard about you from Jeannie Park and she mentioned the reading out loud technique. It helped me when I was writing two stories to tell at live events. Definitely changes the way one writes. Love your blog!

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