What listening to audiobooks taught me about writing

If this picture weren't posed, you know the earbuds would be all tangled up

I’m a recent convert to audiobooks. For years, I never had much patience for them. If you’re a fast reader, one who can knock out a novel in a few hours, spending 10-20 hours on a single book can feel like some kind of sick joke.

What d’you mean… I can’t skip over the boring scenes…?

…I can’t blah-blah-blah through that pointless subplot…?

…I can’t flick to the end and see if whodunnit makes the mystery worth sticking with…?

When you listen to a book in audio form, you’re committing to reading it in its true form. You’re stuck with it, through good plot twists and bad, through fascinating characters and stock villains. If you want to know what happens, you have to be willing to accept any flaws – you can’t just skim-read them away.

The audiobook experience is, of course, how many people read all books. My sister, who’s dyslexic, cannot skim-read. She has to read every word and it takes her a long time. As a result, a book has to work a lot harder to grab her than it does for me. When I’m reading, I’ll give the author 50 or more pages to get going. My sister would simply toss a boring book aside after page 5.

Audiobooks turn you into artificially-slow readers. They turn you into impatient readers. In fact, audiobooks make you into your grouchiest reader self… and, I’ve since realised, that’s actually a good thing.

As writers, we should make sure our books are slow-reader-proof. We should tighten up those drawn-out passages; cull those boring subplots; make sure every character leaps off the page.

In addition to making me more aware of plot mechanics, audiobooks have also made me more aware of how I write narrative, particularly descriptions. As a writer hunched over at computer screen or notepad, it’s easy to get caught up in the way the words look on the page. And, don’t get me wrong, I love that “texture” of ink against paper (or pixels against screen), but it’s easy to get too enamoured of our own moments of descriptive genius.

An audiobook will slice right through a piece of overwrought description. I’ve listened to audiobooks where every sentence is embroidered and adorned and, let me tell you, it’s hard on the ears.

Since I became an audiobook reader, I’ve become much more aware of how my own stories sound, not just how they look. In the past, I often read aloud bits and pieces of my stories (notably dialogue, to make sure it sounded natural), but I never read aloud the whole thing.

Now, that’s become a huge part of my editing routine: Reading my work. Aloud. All the way through.

Sounds tedious…? It is. But it’s also more effective than any other editing trick I’ve tried.

Read a sentence aloud and find you’re stumbling over your words? That means you need to change it.

Read a sentence aloud and find you hit the wrong emphasis? That means you need better punctuation.

Read a sentence aloud and find yourself getting bored? Cut it.

Read a sentence aloud and wince at your ~poetic choice of words? Ditch it.

A story that’s spoken is a very different beast to one that remains on the page. So get reading, aloud. If you can find someone who’ll read your work to you, or someone who’ll be your audience, so much the better. If not, read it aloud to yourself. Personally, I find my sofa cushions make for very attentive listeners…

Do you read your work aloud to yourself? If yes, how has it changed your writing?

Photo credit: Michael Casey

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