Epic Group Writers recently hosted an in-person celebration for winners of its annual contest, and the finalists read their entries out loud. As an audience member I took pleasure in hearing their poems and stories. Perhaps I enjoy being read to because it takes me back to when my parents told us bedtime stories.
In Pablo Neruda’s poem, The Word, he says the “words were born in the blood… and flew through the lips of the mouth.” Before the advent of writing, people told stories to one another orally. Because of texting we barely talk to one another anymore.
The number-one fear, higher than fear of death and spiders, is public speaking. My advice is: Do it anyway.
Whether it’s at an open mic, where you’re trying new material or sharing an old standby, reading out loud provides several rewards.
Spoken word is a sure-fire way to identify typos and bad syntax. I have a tendency to leave out articles, and when I read silently, my brain fills in the missing “a, an, and the” in a sentence. But when I read aloud, a different part of my brain fires up, allowing me to recognize the missing and misspelled words, lax punctuation and bad sentence construction.
If you stumble over a line in a poem or a paragraph, such as”‘the slimy snake slinked across the sand,” the repeated S sounds and monosyllabic words get caught on your tongue and the overall effect is dissonant. “The snake slinked across the sand” is more effective, but “snake slinked” is still a tongue twister.
Lines and sentences possess music and rhythm; uttering the words aloud allows the reader and audience to share in the musicality and tempo of a piece. “The snake slithered across the sand, its body covered in slime” is better since the words follow a more melodic pattern. “Snake slithered” breaks up the staccato “snake slinked” construction.
Screenwriters do table-reads to ensure the lines from a script sound natural. A brochure for a contest where the winner is awarded a table-read of their script by trained actors says: “This is how Oscar-winning writers tighten their story, sharpen their dialogue and fine tune pacing, character and other important elements of their latest projects.” I recently recruited a group of high school students to table-read my own script because I wanted to hear how my teenaged characters sounded through teen voices and not the middle-aged one inside my head. The kids also helped me refine the dialogue by suggesting changes.
Comedians test new material out loud all the time to gauge if the audience is paying attention and laughing at the funny parts. This allows the comic to revise and find the desired one-two-three punch of their jokes.
Being brave enough to share work out loud at an open mic is a way to meet other writers in your community. Poets and writers in the audience will often approach afterward and comment on your work and initiate a dialogue of common interests. If you have a chapbook of poems or a novel or memoir to sell, readings are also a great way to build an audience.
Before you read out loud, time the piece. Recruit friends, family members or your dog as a Beta audience. During practice, underline or highlight phrases and words you want to emphasize for desired effect. Many open mics have time limits, so be sure your piece or excerpt stays within the time frame. I’ve hosted many open mics, and I always feel bad if I have to cut someone off mid-sentence, but others are waiting to share.
For more on the benefits of reading out loud, check out this essay from Voices.
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is board president of EPIC Group Writers. She is currently letting the draft of her fourth novel rest as she tackles adapting her series of novels for streaming TV.