My friend Jason Pytel recently had his first novel published. One thing he told me was you should always read your writing aloud. When he was proofreading he would read his manuscript out loud, slowly and in a monotone voice. He touched each word with a pencil as he spoke it. Otherwise, he found himself automatically filling in any missing words. This process helped him find those sneaky little hard-to-spot errors.
I’ve also heard of people reading their dialogue out loud to catch awkward phrases. Legend has it that Harrison Ford turned to George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars and said, “George, you can write this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” Reading your dialogue aloud drives this point home.
Browne & King, in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, put it like so:
“In addition to helping you overcome stiffness, reading a passage aloud can help you find the rhythm of your dialogue. Speaker attributions, when to insert a beat, when to let the dialogue push ahead—all of this becomes clearer when you hear your dialogue being spoken.”
Of course, this doesn’t help when you are filling in missing words and correcting for typos or poor punctuation in your head. But I’ll come back to that. Browne & King have a couple of other tips when it comes to reading your dialogue aloud:
“Some writers find it helpful to have a friend read through their dialogue with them, as if it were a screenplay. Others read their dialogue into a tape recorder and then play it back—more of the stiffness shows up when they listen than when they read.”
Elizabeth Lyon, in Manuscript Makeover, also recommends reading into a tape recorder:
“Another form of reading aloud involves making a tape recording. The tape recorder method allows you to catch problems as you record your voice, and catch more as you listen to the recording, now freed from thinking about performing the task.”
I don’t know how many people have a tape recorder these days, but cheap digital voice recorders are fairly easy to find. Windows and Mac computers both have free options for voice recording as well. But I hate the sound of my voice when I hear it played back, so this option isn’t for me.
“George, you can write this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”
Fortunately, the folks at Literature & Latte provided another option when they built Scrivener. Apple has had text-to-speech for years. The Mac version of Scrivener takes advantage of this to make your computer read your words back to you. You can select from a range of different voices, but I find the default voice, Alex, to be the most realistic.
To hear your words, simply position the cursor where you would like the computer to begin reading. Then go to the Edit menu and select Speech > Start Speaking.
Your computer will do an astonishingly good job of reading your text aloud. If you want it to stop, go to Edit > Speech > Stop Speaking.
As soon as I discovered this feature I was hooked. Those annoying typos and missed words Jason mentioned become glaringly obvious. Once I finish a scene (or a blog post) I scroll back to the top and get my laptop to read it back to me. I interrupt Alex’s recital every few sentences to fix an off-kilter phrase, or delete an unnecessary word, or generally improve the flow of the prose.
This is a bit clunky through the menu, so I asked whoever tweets for @ScrivenerApp whether there was a way to set shortcut keys to start and stop the text-to-speech. It turns out you can do this through the OSX System Preferences. All you have to do is select the Keyboard Shortcuts tab in the Keyboard preferences window.
Look for the Application Shortcuts item. You can use the + button to add an application. Select Scrivener as the application, and type ‘Start Speaking’ as the menu item. I assigned Control S to Start Speaking, and repeated the process with Control D for Stop Speaking.
“Alex even inserts pauses for breath at full stops and commas, complete with the breathing sounds.”
I have it down to an art. Command S to save (you do save regularly, don’t you?) followed by Control S to read my words back. And Alex does a surprisingly good job at pronouncing complicated words and names. Not a perfect job, I have to say. But far better than I would’ve imagined.
Alex even inserts pauses for breath at full stops and commas, complete with the breathing sounds. I used the speech feature for a couple of days before I noticed. It took that long to figure out exactly what made the artificial voice sound so realistic. When I realised what I was hearing—my computer breathing—it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Then there is the inflection, downwards at the end of a sentence, or upwards if the sentence is a question.
It might not be as good as having a friend read my prose out loud, but it comes close. And given the number of times I stop and start poor Alex over the course of a single scene, it’s probably just as well I don’t inflict the task on a friend. I imagine I’d have been killed before reaching the end of this blog post.