If you want dialogue to sound real, listen to it. Literally. Longer, more complex sentences are much smoother and more graceful on the page than in the mouth. Reading silently, your brain fills in and evens out. So, when you feel your work is in pretty good shape, read it aloud.
Any place you stumble needs to be reworked. Reading your work aloud–whether prose or poetry–helps identify rough patches, awkward words, and other problems.
If feasible, it’s even to have someone else read your work aloud for you. (See what I did there?)
But even before you manage to cajole or coerce a friendly bystander, try running your words through a TTS reader. Text To Speech software is becoming more accurate all the time. It improves accesibility for those with dyslexia, vision problems, aural learning tendencies, busy hands, or a myriad other reasons why hearing words is more effective than reading them.
There are several freewebsites that will convert your writing to spoken words, though they tend to sound like robots.
What these TTS apps lack in cadence, they make up in unrelenting accuracy. There is no friendly human brain to fill in a few words or switch a letter here or there entirely without realizing it.
At many tutoring centers and school writing help centers, students are instructed to read their work aloud during sessions. When the brain is forced to process words orally and aurally as well as visually, it’s much more difficult for mistakes to slip through the cracks.
Sometimes, it’s even possible to break free of the “…said …said …said …said” quagmire. When you hear yourself saying said after said after said, you might say to yourself that your characters need to say something else or say nothing at all.
Most medical professionals agree that a reading habit is much healthier than a cocaine habit or a heroin habit (the ones that don’t are the same dentists who don’t suggest brushing your teeth). For one thing, reading is good for your physical and mental health. You probably know at least some of these benefits of reading every day, but just to review briefly:
Improves brain connectivity
Readers are more able to empathize with others
Aids sleep readiness (if it’s a physical book)
Lowers blood pressure
Lowers heart rate
Helps reduce depression
Reduces cognitive decline with aging
So, everyone should read, and it should start at an early age. According to doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, parents should start reading to/with their children from infancy through elementary school years.
Builds warm, happy associations with books
Increases the likelihood that kids will enjoy reading in the future
Reading at home boosts school performance later on
Builds good communication skills
Physically strengthens the human brain
Builds attention span
What Should You Be Reading?
Whatever you can get your hands on! Even before they know how to read, children will learn reading habits such as which way to hold a book and finding familiar pictures or letters on a page. It’s important to expose kids to books both above and within their current reading ability, in a wide variety of genres.
If you want some guidance on what is age-appropriate for children, you can get advice on-line and/or in actual books. Each grade level in school typically requires students to pass reading skill tests before passing to the next level. Libraries are an excellent resource for book suggestions for children of any age or reading ability.
Every child learns differently and at a different pace. Whether in real life or in your writing, it is entirely too easy to limit children by expected levels or shame a child for not conforming to expectations.
Types of Readers
When it comes to reading habits, to each his or her own. To use a biology analogy, the “family” of readers includes numerous “genera.” In some instances, there are even “species.”
Just about every reader belongs to more than one species to a greater or lesser degree. Many people adjust their reading habits as circumstances allow, changing when children are born or a job change requires a different commuting style.
High Need-for-Achievement Readers
These readers read almost exclusively within their professional area, e.g., mathematics journals or business publications or medical research papers, etc. These readers may or may not enjoy their reading, but they read nonetheless. Some professions, such as teachers and paramedics, require continual study and testing to maintain up-to-date certifications to practice.
If you start a book, you finish that book, no matter what. Anything else feels like failure. For more information about the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder and quirky fixations, check out this post I wrote about the character possibilities of each.
Although this group includes those who read (and study) the Bible, it also includes anyone whose goal is spiritual enlightenment and growth. Many Muslims read and recite the entire Qur’an during Ramadan every year as a form of meditation. Writings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh are widely read by people of many faiths.
These readers want someone to talk with about their reads—which can be more or less academic. Depending on how books are chosen, they are likely to end up reading things they would never have chosen for themselves, which can be good—or not so much. Book groups often have a specific focus, such as current fiction, or botany books, i.e., anything from the genre preferences.
Much like a book group, except it’s whatever one’s bridge buddies, neighbors, family members, et al. are reading, recommending, and/or lending. Depending on the interests of friends, this can lead to a very eclectic reading list. Reading what friends recommend or enjoy can strengthen social bonds by encouraging discussion of books read in common.
These readers are up-to-the-minute at the water-cooler and/or cocktail hour. They often operate on the presumption that if it appeals to enough people to be a bestseller, a book will appeal to themselves as well. The traditional gold standard here is The New York Times. The Times tracks the following categories:
Combined print & e-book
Paperback trade fiction
Combined print & e-book
Note: These bestsellers divisions take account of readers’ format preferences and allow for combining with one’s genre preferences.
These people know what they like and stick to it: a genre is characterized by similarities of form, style, or subject matter. Accordingly, pretty much any category of book is a genre—and I’m probably missing some here, but you get the idea:
Often read more than one book a day, limited to a specific genre, sometimes a limited number of preferred authors. Genre Junkies tend to prefer genres in which a plethora of books are available. A fan of books about Arctic Circle Siberian reptile varieties is likely to run out of material much more quickly than a fan of paranormal dystopian romance fantasy books.
Exactly what it sounds like. These people often skip meals and sleep when a book is particularly hard to put down. Accomplished binge readers may even learn to walk, dress, cook, and feed the dog without putting down the book in their hand.
Reads anything and everything: blogs, poetry, nature, non-fiction, fiction, sci-fi, or whatever. An interesting book from thirty years ago is no lower on the list than the absolute latest best-seller. Eclectics are often bright, inquisitive, and frequent readers.
Some readers have multiple books going and bounce back and forth among them. The bedside book, the lunch break book, the evening book, the boring book they know they should read for some obligation but just can’t seem to make it through… I haven’t seen any formal studies on the subject, but I would imagine that ping-ponging readers would be very good at multi-tasking.
Some people have such packed schedules, they can seldom read for more than fifteen minutes at a time. A person who is able to keep track of characters and plotlines despite snatching only small doses has to have a pretty-good memory.
Generally caretakers or parents, some readers have to wait until their charges are asleep before picking up a book. Parenting and caregiving are both stressful occupations, and reading during naptime or after bedtime can provide absolutely necessary stress relief for Night Readers.
Some people use reading as a form of reward, much as others might promise themselves a piece of chocolate or pair of shoes for completing an unpleasant task. Anyone who enjoys reading could be a self-rewarder: a doctor can only read the latest sci-fi bestseller after reading the latest medical journals; a parent can only read after finishing the laundry; a binge reader has to put the book down until dinner is finished.
As a visitor to a blog about writing and reading, you are probably someone who enjoys reading on some level. However, reading is difficult and not enjoyable for many adults. Some researchers estimate that 1 in 7 adults in the US are functionally illiterate; dyslexia, disrupted schooling, dyspraxia, and many other reasons could lead to a person reaching adulthood with only enough reading skill to be able to function in society.
Besides what we read, our reading habits include when and where we read.
Transit readers: they read on planes, trains, automobiles, and subways. Very careful transit readers may be able to read while walking; audio books make this much easier.
Bed-time readers: exactly what it sounds like.
TV readers: while one’s partner/house mate/family members watch something unappealing on TV, they hang out companionably and read.
Vacation readers: weekends, holidays, and vacations, kicking back with a good book.
Not recommended because it isn’t daily.
Boredom readers: any waiting room or line that goes on forever.
Last but not least, how do we read? Today there are more options than ever. There’s no reason not to read every day! The three basic options:
Physical books: the traditional option, most researched, with best/most positive effects on health
E-books (available on devices from smart phones to tablets to computers to dedicated devices such as Kindle and Nook). Often the choice of people with vision issues (any book can be LARGE PRINT), frequent travelers (who once went abroad with a dozen books or more weighing down the luggage), and anyone who likes having a light-weight, portable library at hand.
Audio books: the choice for someone who wants to do something else simultaneously (e.g., go to sleep, knit, make dinner). Can contribute to distracted driving, so don’t do that while behind the wheel. Audio books are also indispensable for people with impaired vision.
Do other formats have the same health benefits of physical books?
A study by Beth Rogowsky at Bloomsburg University “found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously” using e-readers—and the test was limited to comprehension. It’s too complicated to get into here, but you can check it out. By and large, the effects of reading physical books daily are well-documented. E-books offer some but not all of those benefits. Audiobooks are the great unknown.
Bottom line: develop or nurture your daily reading habits. There is much evidence that it’s good for you, and no negative side effects on record.
Most of us stopped reading aloud when our last child outgrew being a listener. But remember what engaged you and your child. It probably included rhythm, delightful words (think Dr. Seuss), vivid images, and different voices for different characters. These are all good things for adult books and stories.
Reading your work aloud is a good way to improve it. Ideally, someone else would read it aloud while you listen and take notes, but such a partner may be hard to come by. Alternatively, read aloud to yourself—actually reading, not mumbling the words. Perhaps even recording yourself reading at least part of it. Reading aloud accomplishes several things.
1. It highlights verbal tics: Repeated words or phrases hit the ear in a way they don’t hit the eye. Providing a character with a verbal tic can be a good thing, but when everyone uses the same word or phrase, it becomes the author’s verbal tic, and that is not good. It’s boring. I wrote about this in an earlier blog. Also, the same speech patterns makes it difficult for the reader to identify the character who is speaking.
2. You hear awkward sentence structures. Too long. Too convoluted. Too many parenthetical insertions. Too long a series with everything separated by commas, etc. Anywhere you stumble reading aloud, your stranger reader is likely to stumble reading the written word.
3. You can identify needed and unneeded attributions. If John and Susan are the only two people talking, you needn’t identify every change of speaker—something you can easily hear.
4. If you read it as it’s written, punctuation flaws jump out. You can hear when you’ve put a period at the end of a question, or a question mark at the end of a declarative sentence. You can hear when a sentence would benefit from a dash—to add more emphasis than a comma.
5. You’re likely to notice when too many of your paragraphs begin with the same structure. The most likely pattern here is to start each paragraph with a character taking an action. John stood… Mary slammed the book down… Sam laughed… Claris tossed back a shot of bourbon… Such a pattern begs for varied transitions.
BONUS: Reading your work aloud is good practice for when you win a major award and are asked to do public readings all over the country!