“You Must Read Out Loud Darling!” She Warned Him, Encouragingly.
By Brian Wood
Here’s a dirty secret about short stories: when you submit them for publication, the editor doesn’t always read the whole thing. Quite often they skim the pages.
I discovered this back in grad school after my mentor gave me my first editing job. I was thrilled when she called me into her office and assigned me as the fiction editor of her literary magazine. I imagined myself as the gatekeeper of the prose section. And I was eager to discover a new voice in short fiction. But when I got home and opened the submission inbox, I realized I was in over my head. We’d received over 3,000 submissions for eight slots.
That night I read until my eyes burned. I only made it through six stories. Each one somehow managed to be more dreary than the previous. They were voiceless stories. Boring stories. Stories full of navel-gazing and grand epiphanies unfolding at the end.
My whole evening was gone and I only had a few rejections to show for it. The work was strenuous. I calculated how long it would take to run the submission list. There’d be a Hampton Inn on Mars before I finished.
The next day I went back to her office. I told her she had the wrong person for the job. I couldn’t possibly trudge through the inbox in time.
She laughed, as if she knew my breakdown would happen. Of course I wouldn’t be able to read through all of those pages. She told me I needed a system to separate the wheat from the chaff, a shortcut to filter out the lesser quality fiction. And the advice she gave me shaped the way I’ve read and written ever since.
Read your work out loud. That’s it. Sure, she suggested I keep a curious eye on adverbs (especially at the beginning of lines and in a dialogue tag) and she warned me of exclamation marks (in strong writing the line will imply urgency! and excitement!). But several times she encouraged me to read everything out loud.
The problem with most writing is that it sounds like writing. Our eye might be okay with a clunky sentence every now and then. Or perhaps we are willing to glance over fancy, ornate words when simple ones will do. But to the ear? Bad writing sounds like an anvil dropped on a piano.
Imagine if I showed a piece of sheet music to someone who couldn’t sight read. It would be difficult for them to determine if there was an error in the composition. But if I played a piece of music for them, a solo or a scale that contained an off note, even a novice would know something went wrong.
The same holds true in fiction. The sound of your writing highlights sour words.
Ernest Hemingway put it this way: “The essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, bull**** detector.” Nothing calls out BS like your ear. The ear craves harmony. It burns when the lines are cluttered. The ear stops you when an image lacks clarity. It gets bored when it hears a lack of energy. And when dialogue sounds forced and wooden, when your characters are peddling melodrama and sentimentality, the ear is cold and cruel.
When I went back to the submission list, this time reading the stories out loud, I found I could quickly determine if a piece was strong or weak. My eyes were no longer burning. But man, my ears were ringing.
Hearing the written word is a powerful tool to expose the flaws in your writing. So why not give it a shot? Start reading your work audibly. It’s quick, simple, and let’s you know where to begin with edits. Don’t believe me? Go back to the top and read the title again, this time out loud. I know, my ears hurt too.
Learn more about Brian’s workshop this February at Writers & Books: Can We Talk? Crafting Great Dialogue
Photo credit: Stephen S. Reardon