03 October 2012

IWSG: Reading to an audience as an editing tool

This post is in participation with hundreds of insecure writers who dedicate the first Wednesday of every month to post about insecurities: doubts and fears that we have or have conquered. Check out the Insecure Writer's Support Group for more information and a list of the other participating writers. 

One thing I wanted to discuss earlier, that I learned in the July writing conference in Maine, is reading writing aloud and how that can be used as an editing tool. Well a lot happened during that trip, and it was frankly difficult to try to cover even the highlights, so I think it's understandable that this part was abandoned until now.

This is relevant to IWSG because for me, editing = major insecurity. I kind of love-hate editing, and the more methods I have to choose from, the better the chance I'll figure it all out. So here's a newish approach for me.

What happened is that one evening at the conference featured a student reading. A reading is a pretty nice affair in which writers read selections of their work. I've attended many thesis readings at Johns Hopkins here in DC, in addition to graduate readings and instructor readings, as well as readings at book fairs and in bookstore/restaurants and bookstore/coffeehouses. (Hardly any are straight-up bookstores anymore. Apparently it's not exactly lucrative.) Anyway, readings are an enjoyable way to spend time as well as get a sample of a writer's voice (both literal and literary). And it's a pretty fun thing to do with literary-minded comrades.

Anyway. In preparation for the reading, we spent the afternoon practicing reading excerpts of our writing aloud to each other. Something amazing happened. People were suddenly extremely comfortable pointing out parts where the flow wasn't right, where the reader was losing the audience (it was boring), and where the phrasing was awkward. You could hear it. It was so easy to move things around because the goal was to make it sound good.

I was liberated. I cut whole sentences at a time, whole paragraphs! I moved paragraphs from top to bottom, chopped dialogue. Suddenly the 2.5 page excerpt I had started with -- the one that was sometimes dry and sometimes lagged -- had morphed into a lean one page that started right in the middle of the action.

It was so much better. I couldn't believe it.

Fast forward to this past Monday. My thesis class had our first practice reading. (Yes, I will be talking about thesis pretty much nonstop until December. Buckle up and settle in.) I had practiced reading my piece, but there's a distinct difference between reading aloud to yourself and reading to an audience. Reactions are oh so useful.

So yes, I will be cutting the parts where my classmates leaned forward on the table and put their heads down on their arms. I'll definitely be taking a hard look at the paragraph where I say 'ionosphere' twice, and the whole paragraph about the interaction between solar radiation and free electrons in the atmosphere. And yes I noticed a few people glance at the clock during a quote on the longish side.

I suspected the denser technical bits would be less interesting, but I hadn't realized the extent until I had a clearly-bored audience.

How my writing benefits from reading to an audience:

  • personal understanding -- where the writing is repetitive or unnecessarily verbose, where I stumble because of clunky phrasing
  • indirect feedback from the audience -- how they physically react (boredom, laughter, smiles, shock, etc.)
  • direct feedback from the audience -- comments afterward

Of course we also work on literal voice, vocal variation, reading speed, emphasis, and all that.

The point of this post is merely to explain how I have identified writing weaknesses through preparing to read my writing aloud. Not all writing is going to be great read aloud -- most of my writing in the science-medical writing concentration isn't the type of thing you read aloud to an audience -- and that's OK. But it's still something to consider, especially for problems related to pacing. I was amazed at how helpful it is, so perhaps other IWSG participants will also find it useful if they get stuck with a piece.

Now You!

Do you have any techniques that help you make your writing stronger?

Bonus (totally unrelated) question:

Fill in the blank with the word or phrase you would use:
There's a car rolling down the road with dents, the fender hanging off, chipped paint.
That car is a real __________.