Here’s One Simple Trick That Might Surprise You. Or something like that. An easy thing to do, but absolutely invaluable to me when I’m writing:
Read your words out loud. If you stumble, rewrite them.
I use this all the time, and it makes a huge difference to my work!
What follows are a few thoughts as to why it’s helpful, whether you’re writing dialogue to be spoken, or writing prose to be read.
Sentences aren’t just a series of cleverly-constructed word-choices. Sentences are a stream of underlying vocal sounds. It matters terribly which sounds are next to one another — harsh edges, stutters, or repetitions can be like someone poking a stick into the bicycle wheel of the flow of language.
This is often a very mechanical thing — sometimes your tongue and jaw just aren’t fast enough to get from one sound-position in your mouth to the next one. The muscles won’t do it, it feels uncomfortable, and you stumble.
This is why tongue twisters work. They demonstrate that the tongue, teeth, and mouth can struggle to keep up, even with something that seems simple when written down.
Spoken language evolves to make delivering this stream of sounds as effortless as possible. Words get changed, sounds get elided, in outlying cases (Welsh!) spelling transforms depending on which words are next to each other to make them easier to say.
This is why we have ‘an’ as an alternative in English for ‘a’, by the way. It’s nothing to do with letters, and everything to do with what sounds are next to each other. “A orange” is much harder to say than “an orange” — you have to put in an artificial break in your breathing to make it work, or otherwise it’s unintelligible. See also: “an FBI agent”, “a unicorn” and so on.
So, poorly-chosen sound combinations can trip you up, and that’s a problem. These difficult combinations of sounds can be hard to identify from spelling alone. Reading them out loud will help find them.
Think of your actors!
If you are writing dialogue that someone else will be speaking — a screenplay, a game script — then reading out loud as part of your writing process is really useful.
Otherwise you might only find out the words are hard to say on stage or in a recording booth, and that’s a bad place to find out. Understandably, directors and actors will try their best to preserve the actual written words and then will struggle to deliver a perfect read of a line.
Ideally you as a writer will be in the booth to be able to say ‘no, it’s fine, just change it!’, but isn’t it better to just avoid that situation in the first place?
‘George! You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it! Move your mouth when you’re typing!’ — Harrison Ford, to George Lucas
Think of your readers, too!
It’s not all about text that will be spoken — reading out loud is useful for written prose as well.
Whether consciously or not, when silently reading your readers are still forming sentences as streams of sounds somewhere in their heads. Words that are hard to pronounce or hard to parse can throw a reader off their stride — they have to stop, figure the word out, then carry on. Doing that too often can make reading your work exhausting.
I know this varies from writer to writer, but for me there’s an underlying principle here — I want the words to get out of the way, so the concepts, scenes, and characters I’m describing appear in my reader’s head without them noticing how they got there. I don’t want them to be thinking about the mechanism. I’d prefer the transfer to be seamless.
This is very similar to having a good game control system in game design, although the flow is in the opposite direction. I want a player to think ‘jump!’ and their character to instantly jump, without the player having to pause: ‘which button was it to jump, again?’ The control system should be simple, intuitive, and get out of the way — player intention should become action without any friction.
For me, it’s the same with reading; author intention should become a scene in the player’s head without any friction. I want the words to get out of the way, and reading them out loud helps me make that work.
This is also why I have a horror of Unpronounceable Fantasy Names. You know the sort of thing — lots of K’s and Xs and sound like they should be accompanied with spiky swords, and you can only pronounce them if you’re a stunt linguist. The more work you make for your reader, the harder it is for them to lose themselves in your story. Similarly, it’s why I’m not a fan of books that are written phonetically or in large chunks of impenetrable dialect.
Reading out your written words also helps you road-test the language, giving you a head-start on editing.
It can make it obvious that there are pointless repetitions, or soundalike syllables, or that something just doesn’t have a good mouth feel.
It can let you smooth out phrases, or help you rearrange them.
In can show you where the rhythms are wrong, and where you need to put in pauses or break sentences, or to tighten up language.
It can make you realise that all your spoken characters sound similar in phrasing and vocabulary, and that you really need to tweak them until they have unique voices and sound like themselves.
In summary — it’s easy to do, it uses technology that you’re intimately familiar with, and it can make a transformative difference to your work. I recommend it!