When I was four years old, something incredible happened to me. I was sat in my classroom, just before lunchtime, poring over a copy of Meg and Mog. All around me I could hear the gentle rhythm of my classmates reading aloud their own books. My own voice, small and wavering, joined them.
But then all of a sudden, something clicked. All of a sudden, I was no longer reading aloud – I was reading in my head. ‘Great!’ I thought, ‘Now I never have to embarrass myself by reading aloud like a baby ever again!’ There would be no more ‘sounding out’ of words like ‘and’ and ‘then’, no more long pauses while I carefully turned the page with tiny, chubby hands. All my reading could be stowed away safely in my mind, unscrutinised by teachers or friends.
I’m not at all surprised that for most people, the art of reading aloud is lost in those first moments of silent triumph. If I hadn’t had the benefit of being a massive show-off (I could do all the voices, and sometimes the actions, and I wanted everyone to know about it), I might never have read a book out loud again. Most people never do read aloud again, unless they’re forced to by their teachers, or later, by their children. We all know that reading aloud is good for us, and good for our listeners, but very few of us actually do it.
Isn’t that weird? I started thinking about reading aloud again the other day, halfway through a drunken dramatic reading of that keystone of modern literature, My Immortal. ‘What if,’ I thought, ‘What if I read aloud more often? Would it be weird, like singing in the shower? Would it be interesting? Would anyone want to listen?’
Then I forgot all about it and spent the next hour eating pizza and building a blanket fort.
A few days later, I realised that I might actually have been on to something. Reading aloud, I realised, was a good thing to practise doing. Firstly because I am a writer, and sooner or later I’m going to have to read something to someone, and it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to stumble through names of characters or places I’ve just now realised I’ve never heard pronounced before.
Secondly, reading aloud is a great way to edit. When I wrote scripts, I read back the lines to myself (while waving my arms around and pulling funny faces, of course) all the time, to double check that they made sense. Why not do the same for my prose fiction? Why not do the same for other people’s prose fiction?
When we read aloud, we appreciate the written word in a way that we don’t when it’s ‘in our head’. In our head, we’re much more forgiving of misspellings and odd turns of phrase, because our brain, being the clever little snot that it is, has a tendency to correct things for us. Out loud, there’s no such escape for the bland dialogue or the misplaced comma.
When we read aloud, we force ourselves to really take note of everything we read. We run the words along our tongues like each one is a particularly satisfying ice lolly. We learn to appreciate each pause for breath. We give the characters voices, and we spot immediately any weird deviation from their usual personality. I’ve heard it said a hundred times that any good writer first has to read, has to pore over the classics and the moderns in search of that little kernel of technique that they can adapt for their own work. Reading aloud helps us spot problems in a work, but it also helps us to appreciate when something is really, really good. Did that last sentence sound good to you? Read it again. Say it in your own voice. Say it in someone else’s voice. You could do this all day.
Don’t want to sit around in an empty house reading to just yourself? Find a willing audience. Children, obviously, love being read to. Apparently, so do pets. If it’s your own work you’re reading, try signing up to an open mic and give it a test run in front of a real audience. If you want to get a feel for a certain style, or just test out your voice, why not volunteer for the talking newspaper, or join a reading group? If you find that reading aloud is the best thing you’ve ever tried, I’d like to hear about it. Or, if you try it and end up ridiculed by your peers and peed on by your cat, I’d like to hear about that too. The comments section is right there, below this post.