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On Reading Your Work Out Loud

When I wrote my first novel, Portrait of Sebastian Khan, I often worked in cafes, if I was lucky at a corner table where I could angle my screen away from prying eyes and sit muttering to myself as I thought of how best to phrase things, though more often at a counter or communal table, where I had to keep my mutterings to a minimum (lest people think I was crazy) and try instead to imagine in my head what each sentence would sound like. It wasn’t until later, in the privacy of my apartment, that I would occasionally read what I wrote out loud and then edit accordingly to find the right rhythm—and if you’ve read my previous blog posts, you’ll know that for me, rhythm is everything.

Unfortunately, though, for Portrait, I often skipped this crucial step. I’d heard plenty of times from teachers and fellow writers that reading your work out loud was essential to improving your writing, but for some reason I resisted committing fully to this practice. Instead, I would usually just “read it aloud in my head,” which, of course, is not at all the same. Speaking a sentence out loud forces you to hear the way it sounds, its ups and downs, its movement, its pacing, and thus recognize where it may be too slow or too fast. If it’s just in your head, your brain will simply push through a rhythmically awkward or stilted passage.

It wasn’t until I recorded the audiobook for Portrait that I finally understood the importance of reading out loud. Those who listen to audiobooks regularly will know that the standard narration is emphatically (and, some might argue, excruciatingly) slow, so much so that most listeners I know prefer a 1.25x or 1.5x speed. But I had to record my novel at the standard speed, which forced me to read it out loud much slower than I’d ever done. And suddenly, in the process, I felt like I understood my work on a different level: I began to hear the hidden rhythms in my sentences (sentences which I’d mostly dashed off with a youthful insouciance, in an attempt to convey the carefree attitude of my protagonist)—or, to put it another way, I realized that my writerly “voice,” as natural as it had felt to me, was actually something I could break down and understand. I heard the subtle difference between a modifier and subordinate clause, and the effect of a longer compound sentence versus a series of shorter declarative ones. Overall, I realized there was a powerful emotional effect in all of the rhythmic choices I’d made, even if when I made them I hadn’t fully understand why.

After publication, doing events also helped me understand my work in this new way. As most published authors probably feel, there are only a few passages that you can read to an audience unfamiliar with your book, and so you end up reading the same ones multiple times—and after a few events, you’ve basically memorized them. This makes sense to me, since I remember from the one time I did theater in college (I was Nestor in a production of Troilus and Cressida—a hilarious and highly underrated Shakespeare play, a semi-satirical take on the Trojan War), I would memorize my lines by reading them out loud over and over again in my room (interestingly, that brief experience acting prepared me for bookstore readings better than I could have imagined). A common expression for memorizing is “learning by heart,” and I feel like now, having read my work out loud so many times, I understand the meaning behind this expression. “Memorizing” suggests a mental, almost mechanistic function, but learning something “by heart” conveys the full experience of that process, of internalizing the complex sounds of every sentence and understanding the deeper meaning of their rhythms.

For me, these experiences reading my work aloud have taught me how important the sound of prose is—and as a result I now always try to write in my apartment, so I can read out loud as I go along. And while literary theorists have written extensively about our broader shift from an oral to a print culture, I think rhythm and sound still have an essential place. After all, if literature began with Mesopotamian poets reciting their words around communal fires, then audiobooks and bookstore readings are just contemporary variations of this same tradition.

So my fellow writers: read your work aloud! Hear that rhythm echo off your walls! Imagine you are a poet in Ancient Sumer, singing in front of a ziggurat about the exploits of Gilgamesh.