Do this one thing while writing (or else)

I don't write anything -- a novel, email or blog post -- without it

Whether you're at the early readers stage or the professional editor stage, at some point in your proofreading process, you're going to hear this:

It isn't working.

Oof. Right to the gut, that one. You've slogged over this story and thought of nothing but the characters, you've given it your mornings, lunch breaks and late night Netflix hours, and it isn't working?

The really wonderful skill about really wonderful writers is their flexible language. They can spin one heck of a sentence. Yet it isn't always necessary, and when there's too much of it, it doesn't work.

The really wonderful trait about really wonderful writers is their flexible language. They can spin one heck of a sentence. Yet it isn't always necessary, and when there's too much of it, it doesn't work. There's one thing I do with every piece of writing I compose -- from a novel to an email to a blog post (hey, like this one!).

Every piece of writing I compose -- from a novel to an email to a blog post (hey, like this one!) -- is read out loud. I sit here in my office -- windows open to the neighbors; I don't care -- and read my words so I can hear them. And there hasn't been a single time reading out loud hasn't led me to a stronger piece. It helps limit acrobatic writing by finding words that come off as unnatural.

Read your work out loud. It helps limit acrobatic writing.

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That's what your readers and editor mean when they say a piece isn't working: They find discomfort in unnatural prose.

Sometimes, we writers are indulgent. Whenever I think of writing that doesn't work, writing where the maker got a little too fancy and used prose to force her readers outside the narrative, I think of a short story I wrote in 2008. It's called "Cicadas," and it was published in a lovely Australian magazine called Regime.

Here's an excerpt:

"Is that what you want? To have had something other than what you have now?" he asked. "Alice, you have a dream life in your dusky apartment, living among your Dostoyevskys and Brontës, spinning records until Michael gets home to tell you about the music he created that day. That doesn't happen to regular people," he laughed. "Regular people don’t have great loves at 22."

I cringe! No one speaks like that. Have you ever said the word "dusky" without feeling totally self-aware? It's fine to indulge from time to time, but whenever I read that section of "Cicadas," I think more about the writing than the plot -- a no-no. Here's an example of the impact of aural experience, from Lauren Acampora's The Wonder Garden.

It's OK to not have all the answers in your writing, for your narrator to not speak declaratively. Who does, in real life? Here's an example from John Updike's story "A & P":

She had on a kind of dirty-pink -- beige maybe, I don't know -- bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim.

This is a great example of a writer writing like a person. When you read this section out loud, this is how you'd describe the clothing of someone you'd seen, using fillers like "kind of" and "maybe, I don't know." What makes this good writing and not simply transcribing someone's monologue is moments like "what got me" and "the cool tops of her arms" -- You're unlikely to speak this way, right? It's pairing the everyday, conversational writing with long-time skill that makes this work.

I talk about Raymond Carver often because I think he did simple prose so well. He and Annie Proulx have that in common: There's a barrenness to their physical and literary landscape. In Carver's short story "A Small, Good Thing," he writes:

She wanted to talk more with these people who were in the same kind of waiting she was in. She was afraid, and they were afraid. They had that in common.

There's a huge, grand way to rewrite these three sentences using lofty language and too many adjectives, but he reigns in his talent. He probably could write more, but it isn't necessary. Of course, we can't talk of Carver’s talent without recognizing it might not have been all his, but regardless, this story, with Carver's name on it, creates a stillness when read aloud.

It's like when you're watching a really powerful actor in a scene -- say, Julianne Moore in "Still Alice" (and I suggest reading this beautiful book first, if you haven't already) -- and you find yourself holding your breath during her pauses. That's how great writing impacts a reader, and you can experience it for yourself out loud. It's the only time you’ll experience that sentence, that paragraph, the whole dang novel new. Any subsequent readings you do will be the second, third, fourth times.

At the end of the same story, Carver writes:

Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.

He might have written: In times of hardship, when your boat's been rocked and the waves stand 50 feet high and you mightn't go on: one meal, and then another. Food makes for one thing you can count on in times like these.

It's the same sentiment, but when each read aloud, you see that you get the same feeling in far fewer words with Carver's sentence. Strunk and White would be proud.

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