Sunday, September 24, 2017

Author’s Toolbox: The Auditory Read Through

by James M. Jackson

Every author develops a toolkit of writing skills and techniques, preferred software and hardware, and proven processes to develop a polished manuscript. In my online course, Revision and Self-Editing (next month-long class starts October 1 if you are interested), I suggest authors add the Auditory Read Through to their stockpile of available tools.

If you are like most modern authors, you compose your first draft using a word-processing program, which means you first see your words on a screen. You may rewrite your manuscript using a screen to display your text, or you may print out a copy of your manuscript, make handwritten corrections and then convert those back to an electronic form.

Many authors have learned that they find different problems when they view their manuscript on the screen compared to what they find when using a hard copy. I know authors who change from their standard font and a single column printout and use a different font and two columns to make sure nothing looks “familiar.” In addition to these techniques, I suggest that you will discover different issues when you read your manuscript out loud.

Even if on previous read throughs you silently sounded things out in your head, you were not using your sense of hearing. Before the written word, stories were spoken, and you should listen to yours to discover a few last issues you may have missed.

Approaches to the Auditory Read Through

#1 I read it myself

One key to this approach is I try to mimic a reader’s experience.
I print out the manuscript single-spaced applying the same font, type size, lines per page and page size as the publisher uses. As I read, I’ll see, for example, a long paragraph that needs splitting or dialogue that runs unbroken for two pages. [I do not worry about exact layout, orphan lines, where words break on a line, or anything like that.]

What do I listen for? Anything that doesn’t sound right on a sentence-by-sentence basis, or as part of a paragraph, or the entire page. Whenever I stumble or trip over a word, there is a good chance I need a rewrite. This gives me the opportunity to straighten convoluted sentences and exchange flabby diction with precise wording.

I often discover I used a word several times within a short span. I might not see the multiple uses on screen or page, but my ear picks them up. Reading often reveals double words: detritus remaining from earlier rewriting (the the is my most common).

I pay attention to adverbs: are they covering for a flabby verb? Make sure every adverb is necessary. As an example, consider the line “She quickly walked to the sidewalk.” With the multitude of verbs available to describe exactly how she moved to the sidewalk, this sentence employs a lazy approximation for what the reader should visualize as they read.

Where I used multiple adjectives, can I replace them with one perfect descriptor?

Have I noun-ized verbs (xxxxx-ness) or verbed nouns (xxxxx-ize)?

Are verbs that end with “ing” appropriate?

Have I fallen into a repetitive pattern? Do too many sentences share the same form? Are sentences all the same length?

#2 Use software to read the manuscript

I used this technique with Empty Promises (Seamus McCree #5) this week as the final step before sending the manuscript to my editor. I allow the software to read the words (fully engaging my ears in the process) while I follow along on the computer screen. A variety of free and for-purchase software exists to read documents. I use the voices incorporated in Microsoft Word.

Most of my POV characters for this story are male, so I chose Microsoft’s David Mobile. Unlike a voice actor, or when I read my WIP aloud, this electronic reading does not provide inflection, which allows me to pay more attention to the actual words. It does take a bit of getting used to. Microsoft mangles many proper names because it tries to pronounce them phonetically and guesses at syllables. One character is Frank Cabibi. I’ve pronounced his last name in my head as Că-BEE-bee. Microsoft David chose CAY-bǝ-BY. David also doesn’t correctly enunciate the difference between the “live” in live bait versus the one in live and let live.

The occasional auditory jar startles me back to listening with careful ears. When I read my own work, I read through typos. (I know what the word is supposed to be.) Microsoft David reads what’s there, catching, for example, “habit” in a sentence where I intended “habitat.” (The error had survived two earlier drafts.) He always reads double words, something I sometimes miss when I read my own manuscript.

Some things are more obvious when I listen to my writing rather than read it myself. I can’t catch words or sentences I stumble over—Microsoft David is too competent to stumble. However, I do catch more clunky sentences when hearing his monotone—words, not inflection, must carry the meaning.

#3 Record, then listen

I have not tried this technique, but I know authors who swear by recording themselves reading their manuscript out loud and then listening to the recording. While they record their words, they muzzle the internal editor. (This is the part I find impossible.) Once they start the playback, they are truly listening (since they are not also reading).

When to perform an Auditory Read Through

My current workflow incorporates two Auditory Read Throughs. The first is as I described in my use for Empty Promises: when I think I have a manuscript ready to send to my editor. I know the editor will find many things for me to change, and much of this polishing will be wasted effort. However, if I’ve corrected all the problems I can see, it allows my editor to spend her time spotting things I haven’t seen. For me that is worth the extra time.

I perform a final Auditory Read Through on the final, final, final, manuscript. It’s my last bit of quality control before I approve the manuscript for publication. I admit it’s probably a belt-and-suspenders approach to a clean read, but hey—it’s my name on the cover!

If you’ve tried the technique, how did you think it worked for you? If you haven’t performed an Auditory Read Through, do you think you might?

~ Jim

There is still time to register for the Revision and Self-Editing class, which you can do from Jim's website.


  1. I read to my standard poodles, who are always nearby, though their attention wanders. I usually read through dialogue scenes several times, trying to differentiate the speech of different characters.

  2. I always find errors when I read aloud. It is a standard part of my editing.

  3. Margaret -- your poodles are much more forgiving than my golden would have been. Their attention only wanders, my golden would have been snoring and probably passing gas if I had subjected her to reading out loud.

    ~ Jim

  4. This is well-timed advice for me since I've been doing copy edits. I didn't know we could choose readers - off to check this out. Thanks, Jim!

  5. Shari - Let me know how it goes for you.

    ~ Jim

  6. I have a technical question. I have tried to use Microsoft's reader and I found it helpful. My question?
    How do you get him to keep reading? If I stop because of an error, I cannot get it to continue reading the full page. I know I must not be "selecting" something correctly but have not found the correct solution.
    Thanks, for the informative blog.
    Always learning.

  7. Hey Holly,

    Good question to which I don't have any answer. I'll tell you what I do, however, which is highlight only two or three paragraphs at a time. If there are no corrections needed, I highlight the next grouping. If a chance is needed, I make it and listen to the revision.

    I tried highlighting more, but had the same issue you have. Plus, I found if I had it read a large glob of material, I sometimes let my concentration shift. This way, I have to keep actively interfacing with the program and I stay sharp.

    I hope that helps.

    ~ Jim

  8. One of my critique partners in my first Guppy critique group always submitted clean chapters. The group commented on it and she shared that she read her chapters out loud before submitting them. I picked up the habit from her and find it makes a surprising difference. I'm also one of those people who sees different issues in print and on screen so I always try to print and read a hard copy before I submit anything.

    I've never tried the Microsoft reader, sounds intriguing especially as it has to be done in small portions. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Thanks, Jim, for the excellent suggestions. I once did a reading of my first five pages at a conference to an audience of attendees. I was aware how boring the first pages were once I heard them aloud. I wish I had heard them read by someone or machine before I embarrassed myself in front of an audience. The audience was forgiving, but I had to decide whether it was my inability to dramatize my own work or whether the pages needed to be rewritten. Probably a little of both.

  10. Kait -- I am like you and also see different issues when I work on screen compared to on printed paper -- and audio adds a third layer.

    Grace -- Voice actors are skilled in ways the rest of us are not at enhancing a reading -- but whenever I find something I write is boring -- it is. :(

    ~ Jim


  11. Jim, sometimes, but not always I read my work aloud. I'm getting ready to start a new book,
    and this time I think I'll do that. Mostly I rely on my Guppy critique partners I've had for
    almost nine years now. I do print everything out and keep a hard copy to read over after reading it online. That way I can go back to previous chapters in the current book, and in the previous books too, to make sure I'm not changing something from before.


  12. Gloria -- the more books you have in your series, the more you need a series bible to make sure you don't turn a blond into a redhead without the aid of chemicals.

    ~ Jim

  13. I let my laptop read to me as I follow along on the desktop.

    Some of the mispronunciations are amusing. Some of my characters wear hoodies, which become "Who dies" to the mechanical voice.