Thursday, August 6, 2009

Be precise.

My daughter, Serious Girl, is a tough audience. She has all her books and songs memorized, and will let you know with an angry wail if you've gotten anything wrong. This makes for problematic story-time if, for example, I'm also trying to cook dinner, and she's holding the book on the other side of the kitchen, and I'm trying to read the story upside down or remember the words when I can't even see what page she's on.

She used to only object to big mistakes like skipping an entire sentence, but now she will vociferously protest if I say "mama says" instead of "says mama" when reading her Five Little Monkeys book. She howled when I said "will" instead of "may" while reading Dr. Seuss. And she recently burst into tears during a rendition of The Three Little Pigs when I said "a" instead of "the" during a critical scene. It was past her bedtime, but this still seemed to be disproportionate reaction to me at the time, especially since I've NEVER read this story in book form, and she was instead insisting that my own personal invented/memorized version of the bedtime story be nearly identical night after night.

Still, I'm starting to think she may have a point. Will and may do, in fact, have extremely different meanings, as do the and a. (I hold the line at "mama says" vs. "says mama", however. I firmly believe that those are complete functional equivalents.)

How nitpicky do you get during edits? One can't get this language-obsessed during a first draft or the story will never be written (or, okay, you'll end up spending 3+ years on the thing like I did because my internal editor lives for this kind of parsing), but I think that once you've got a clean draft -- no more "insert chapter here" notations in the margins -- that it is worth doing this kind of editorial thinking.

Can you do it yourself? Do you need to hand it off to someone else? Do you not worry about it unless the sentence is kind of jarring to you on the page and clearly needs some help?

For me, I can't do this kind of editing on the computer, but it comes pretty naturally to me if I'm reading a printed page. (I think legal training helps in this arena.) However. I don't think you're really done until you have read the manuscript aloud to actually listen for these nuances... I've also heard that some people recommend reading the manuscript backwards, but I think that would make my head explode.

Please read your finished novel out loud. Yes, it's crazy time-consuming. But some stuff looks great on the page, and sounds just ridiculous. And it's not just for the novel's dialogue: all parts of the novel should work when read aloud, I promise you. The rhythm is there, in people's heads as they read, and you just may be too close to the work for your own internal reader to catch it. So make that reader external, and you'll be amazed at what you find.

My daughter knows how to catch mistakes in a story that's being read out loud. You should, too.

Have you ever read your work out loud? Publicly or privately? Did you catch anything? I once caught a sentence like "she was wearing a cotton sweater made of cotton" only after reading it out loud. And it was in the first 10 pages of the novel -- that's embarrassing.

And, the fun question: who do you want to read the audiobook of your novel? Do you want to do it yourself? (I do!) Or is there some celebrity who might perhaps do the work justice?


  1. Sounds like you are raising a future editor! As for reading my own audiobook, no thanks. I've often wondered when listening to audios how many takes they have to do to get all the words right. I think I would be messing up every other sentence, even if I was the one who wrote it.

  2. I think reading aloud is indeed a critical tool for editing. Although I can generally sound everything in my head better (I write in English better than I speak). I like paragraphs to sound like poetry as much as possible and true, an "a" can be quite different than a "the".

  3. I'm not all that picky. I have found that often my first instinct with words is the best one. When I tool around too much with it, it loses its beauty.

  4. I've had someone else suggest to me that I read my work outloud. I cringed at first because I'm a bit *ahem* wordy, but I can see how it would help tremendously in the revision stage.

    And I HAVE to have someone come behind me and check my editing. I always miss spelling and grammar errors. And having someone who's not a writer read it and give suggestions for changes and edits is so helpful because it's a way to get inside the heads of those who are going to be picking it up and plunking down some hard earned cash for it.


  5. I always read my stuff out loud when I'm done with the big revisions. And I always find stuff I didn't when I read it in my head.

  6. I try to read mine out loud too. I'ts amazing what a difference that makes! But I also think that no matter how many times we read it in various forms, we need an objective pair of eyes to read it, preferrably someone with knowledge of writing craft. I've found that invaluable.

  7. Reading out loud is the best thing that ever happened to my writing, especially the dialouge.

    I'm amazingly lucky to have friends (and a girlfriend) who lend me their editorial talents if I ask nicely and give them chocolate.

    I can edit, but I need to give it some time between rough draft and doing my first edit or my brain doesn't pick up on the problems.

    Good post :)

  8. I'd love to read my book aloud for and audio book! How fun! and yeah, i'm like you, I catch most of my mistakes after reading the work to someone else- namely husband!

  9. I read my work out loud, always. I think part of the reason it helps - other than the point you make re how it *sounds* - is that I read so fast, particularly my own work, that reading out loud forces me to slow down enough to actually see every word. I too have caught double "cottons" more than a few times...or realized that I started a paragraph with a sentence and ended the paragraph with an almost identical sentence...which is more embarrassing...

    --Lisa P.

  10. Lisa, it is really weird that you're still having trouble posting un-anonymously...

    It should at least let you enter a name under the "Comment as: Name/URL" option...