Actually, not only is reading your work aloud permissible, you should consider making it a mandatory part of your writing and editing process.
It’s part of mine. When I’m ‘combing’ through passages looking for errors, I’m also seeking rhythm and flow. The best way for me to find it is to read the passage out loud.
It surprises me how different it can sound–and how my tongue will trip over a missing word that my mind is sure was there just a second ago. Words that I used two paragraphs back suddenly shout at me, saying, “Yo! I just had my turn! Use someone else!”
Reading a paragraph out loud will help me avoid sentence structures that repeat themselves as though fired from a Gatling gun, or combinations that are singsong, morphing into some bizarre nursery rhyme.
My voice helps me to find the cadence of the scene, to rearrange words and build sentences that reflect the emotion of the moment, and my ears tell me when something just plain doesn’t work.
I never release my writing to the outer world without reading it out loud, beginning to end, multiple times. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business letter, my blog, or a fiction piece that may or may not be complete. For me, it’s the last vet check before the gate opens and the horse bearing my words races down the track.
So when I was asked if I would like to read a scene or two from Watcher during the open-mike session of a poetry reading, I had no hesitation.
While in town on business, I called my friend, Sharon, who is doing some editing work for me, and asked about getting together. She kindly invited me join her for dinner with a few other friends on Poetry Night, and it was then that she asked if I would like to read from Watcher.
I knew immediately that the opening cemetery scene contained enough emotion and imagery for a verbal ‘performance’ –for that is what it really is when you read your work aloud for an audience. But I was unsure of which passage to read for the second half of my five minutes of fame. I practiced a few the evening before the dinner, intending to consult with Sharon before making the final choice.
As it turned out, several of the dinner friends actually run the Poetry Night. Dr. Andy Jones and Brad Henderson are both University of California Davis literature professors and well-known local poets. The other dinner guests, besides Sharon and me, were the featured poets of Poetry Night. Susan Wolbarst and Allegra Silberstein are accomplished and published poets, and in 2010, Allegra was named the first Poet Laureate of the City of Davis.
So I was in pretty distinguished company and was suddenly more than a little intimidated by the ears and judgments of the people I would be reading to. But Sharon reassured me (she is a huge fan of Watcher) and together we made the decision on which passages I would read. One, of course, was the cemetery scene. But the other was one I had not practiced the night before. Yet it was another scene with enough vivid imagery that I felt it would read well, and so I took the chance and read it unpracticed.
But it wasn’t really unpracticed. Because when I wrote it, and during the dozens of editing sessions that I’ve subjected Watcher to, I read it out loud. Over and over again. Granted, the last time I’d read it was probably four or five months prior to Poetry Night. But it was well-vetted verbally, and I knew this horse would fly smoothly down the track.
As I listened to the poets and other performers, I blocked all thoughts of my impending time in front of the mike, refusing to give into the nervousness that I knew was lurking. And when I stepped up on the stage and began reading, I forced myself to stay calm and read slowly, and let the horse I’d trained have a little bit of rein.
The words flowed in that cadence I’d schooled them into, and the scene maintained its emotional rhythm throughout its run. And I believe the audience caught a good glimpse of Sunny’s pain as she watched her daughter place flowers on her empty grave.
I took a deep breath and turned to the marked page of the second scene. And as I began to read of falling snowflakes, fluffy cushions of downy white, and the unpainting of nature’s colorful forest canvas, I could feel Sunny’s amazement and joy, and I can only hope some of that was able to reach the audience through my voice.
As I left the stage to the appreciative sound of more-than-just-polite applause, I smiled as I realized that I had just read excerpts from a vampire novel (the dark stepchild of popular fiction) to a group of poetry lovers who likely had no idea that the subject in the scenes lived on blood.
And surprisingly, I wasn’t embarrassed by what I’d read or how I’d read it. I was proud of it, in spite of the fact that admitting I write vampire fiction is a bit embarrassing itself. And I believe I felt that way about my performance because I’ve been practicing those scenes for my own ears for well over a year now.
So not only am I suggesting you read your work aloud during both the writing and the editing phases, I recommend you look for opportunities to read it aloud for others. You may discover something important about your work, and you may find a renewed sense of faith in what you are putting on the page.