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Robert's Rules of Writing #63: De-Claim! De Claim!

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's 63rd rule can really be stated quite simply, in one sentence:

Read your work aloud.

I first heard this piece of advice from James Patrick Kelly when I attended Clarion. I had submitted a story to the workshop, "'Til Death Do Us Part," and the less said about the plot of the story, the better. I recall vividly Jim's plethora of advice on how to fix the story. Many of his suggestions would have turned the story into a gonzo Jim Kelly story, and I despaired of getting it to work. But one piece of advice he gave me I was able to take to heart immediately.

"This story needs to be read aloud," he said.

Up until then, I tended to be more concerned with the look of the page than the sound of the words. After all, for the most part readers would experience my stories as words on the page, and not as words spoken aloud to them. And although I later learned that some writing workshops encouraged the participants to read their work aloud, all the workshops I had attended functioned differently. We had always read the stories by ourselves in advance, and not aloud in front of the group. Consequently, it had never even occurred to me that reading aloud was a possible tool, let alone a useful one.

(Aside: Often the best advice one learns is the stuff that seems obvious in retrospect. The first formal workshop class I took was with editor John Ordover, and at the time I had been sending out one of my stories to various editors and receiving personal feedback. But the letters were rejection notes, even if the editors gave me advice on how to improve the story. So I asked John, do I make the suggested changes even though the story is going to a different market? And he said, "Well, that depends. Do you agree with them?" The advice was worth the fifty bucks the workshop cost.)

So after Jim gave me his advice, I started to read my work aloud. And I discovered that I was enamored of writing techniques that sometimes made my meaning unclear. Reading aloud allowed me to avoid homonyms appearing too closely together (get it?). It also encouraged me to go through my work more slowly, at a reader's truer pace.

Finally, reading aloud also helped me get a better handle on dialogue. Dialogue, after all, is meant to be spoken language; what better way to make sure that it sounds real than to read it aloud? And scriptwriters should take special note of this, because if the prose sounds stilted or clumsy when read aloud, your actors will hate you.

I can't say that I've read aloud every story I've published. But I can say that the ones I read aloud before submitting tended to sell faster and earn more positive comments than the others.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein


"scriptwriters should take special note of this, because if the prose sounds stilted or clumsy when read aloud, your actors will hate you"

Or as Harrison Ford said to George Lucas, "George, you may be able to write this stuff, but you can't speak it"
I do a subset of this naturally: Although my language skills lie in reading/writing rather than in listening/speaking, I mentally sound out everything I'm reading or writing. (That's why I really care whether there's a pronunciation guide for fantasy novels that use unusual names, and why I was thinking Harry Potter's friend was Her-mee-own rather than Her-my-oh-knee -- until the fourth book, anyway.) It does help with the dialogue, and it affects my writing style, too -- when I'm writing fiction, I use a sort of turn-based third-person limited omniscient narrative mode, and the style for each passage is based strongly on the way the character would speak and "therefore" think.

My prose is still pretty stilted, though. That's why I don't ever read it aloud; it makes me cringe! Maybe if I can just fight past that, though, I can find how to let it help me.

December 2016

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