Yesterday was one of the best days in a writing project. I got to hand a beautiful hardbound book to my client, wrapped in tissue paper and ribbon for him to open. We started getting together in my studio (living room, if that’s what you want to call it) seven months ago to get his oral history and did six sessions in all, which amounted to 160 pages of transcripts and notes, and many rounds of editing to get it as right as we could. That moment is always a thrill. You might think handing him his book is the very best day, but in looking back, I’m not entirely sure. I love the process and the time spent together, and one of the best days of all is this: the read aloud session. I don’t recall who turned me onto this technique, but except for rare exceptions, we insist on this with every client story we write. Why? Because when we read words out loud, it calls out ridiculous phrasing and sentences that do not sound like our client. This step also points out typos and reading the entire sitting over one or two highlights sections that drag. It’s obvious what needs more emotion and what can be cut or combined as redundant. Not only do all these housekeeping notes matter, but the process is enjoyable, even poignant, for everyone.
5 reasons to read words out loud:
1. Reading out loud is an enjoyable, intimate experience.
As I mentioned, I don’t remember who tipped me off to this technique early in my writing, but I scheduled a whole summer weekend in Park City with my mom and BFF, Megan to read the draft of my mom’s book together. We checked into a condo and took turns reading the manuscript. I marked it up like a madwoman as we read. I felt a sense of closeness to the two women who have influenced me more than any others. It was my mother’s story (which would be published as Every Essential Element), and we stopped as needed so she could tell additional memories that came to her, or to express concern over any sections. It made the book much better and taught me a lot about how to improve my own writing.
Another experience was when, last winter over several snowy days when the evergreens were draped as though wrapped in chunky woolen scarves, I drove my Corolla with snow tires up the base of the mountain. Norma Kier’s beautiful home was my destination and it felt like a retreat for us to read the Remember When manuscript together. By this time in the project, our friendship had blossomed into a genuine affection or each other (I don’t hesitate to tell her I love her) and we enjoyed this time together. We are like girlfriends 40 years apart in age.
The process felt wonderful and I relished all the times Norma stopped me to recall additional memories or add in details. As we took a break for sandwiches, we looked out the window at white wonderland and fat flakes of snow falling. She told me about the day after her husband Jim Kier died. As they grieved, a bobcat appeared in the yard. It was the only time in all their years living there they saw such a magnificent animal, and it felt like a spiritual experience, as though even the animals sensed something wondrous happening. One of this world’s great souls had began his journey to the world beyond. Norma pointed to me where the bobcat bounded over the fence without effort. Then we resumed our reading, and we shed tears together while reading the emotional parts.
2. Reading out loud catches so many issues.
Reading a manuscript out loud is not all tender, though. We noted typos, where words were omitted, and awkward phrasing. I read, and she kept her eagle eye focused on errors. While reading, some of what jumps out at me is the sheer nonsense of words that seem clever on my computer monitor, but are so overblown I would be embarrassed if the world ever knew I had once written them.
I’ll share one example. In an early passage, I was looking for a good word to described how Norma used to get bundled up to go out in the snow when she was a girl in Canada. I had gone through a list of synonyms in my head and had landed on “ensconced.” Seriously, Rhonda? When that word came out of my mouth I realized my pretentiousness. I settled on a word that wasn’t crying for attention like my 4-year-old when I am distracted by my phone.
3. Reading the words out loud highlights voice.
Not only does reading a manuscript out loud point out odd or silly phrasing, it also highlights the voice. The goal when I help a client with a story, is to write it so his or her voice rings true on the page. It should be written so nobody would ever suspect they had help. Every client has a unique voice and idioms particular to their generation and experience. When I draft a client story, I like to include a few of their verbal tics, and especially their expressions, and phrasing. A cowboy will use different language than a doctor. A woman who came of age in the 50s will speak with a formality entirely different than younger generations. Whether to include swear words is usually a decision of personal taste, and speaking the words together calls the question.
4. Reading a family story out loud brings up real-world sensitivities before it is too late.
As a matter of practicality, in Norma’s case we scheduled the read-aloud session for before we would give copies to her children to review. Sharing a manuscript with family members is nerve-wracking because if we get it wrong, not only will they roll their eyes but sometimes hurt feelings are hard to repair. I have learned to write early drafts with wild abandon, not worrying what other people will think but rather focusing on heart and emotion. In a later draft, however, it is important in a family history to read it and think about how others might feel about passages before they ever see a work-in-process. When we read the words out loud, it naturally brings what was only in our heads out into the real world, and we become mindful of these ramifications.
So, as a side note of caution to anyone writing family history, you will do well to expect that no matter how hard you try, there will be some unanticipated sensitivities. Do you have thick enough skin to take it? Can you set your ego aside in order to realize that family relationship are more important than your precious words?
When I wrote my family’s story, I touched some nerves I did not see coming. Now as a professional, I expect it and do my best to take it without flinching. I simply accept the feedback and remain true to my personal ethic that my purpose for writing is to bring families together, not drive wedges. I would never want to hurt someone or make anyone look bad. Since I was raised in a family business, I know firsthand that families are funny social units. I also fully understand that every member of a family will have a different recollection of what happened and what it means. Whose memory is correct? When I write stories for publication, I get feedback from family members and work on a collective narrative that everyone can live with. That said, there are also times when I must stand firm next to the client whose voice the story is written in by saying at times, “This is her story. If you wish to write your version, I encourage you to do so.” It’s a delicate balance and requires some diplomacy.
If your personality cannot put yourself into the shoes of a child or sibling whose feelings you may hurt with your words, if you cannot see it from their perspective, if you are the kind of person who takes criticism by coming out swinging, then I caution you against writing about other people in stories you will publish. Write your own experiences and keep it to yourself. Publish it on FamilySearch with the settings as private until after you’re dead. Your relationships in the here and now are not worth letting your ego be in the driver’s seat.
As for me, I have learned then that there is no predicting the ways a story might bring up old wounds, some of which may never have been voiced. Even if it might seem petty to an outsider, I listen with an open heart and do my best to take these conversations seriously. Once I am aware, I do my best to smooth it over, apologize for my own faux pas (The mistake is mine for not understanding, not the client’s!) and then I get to work editing as appropriate.
In a writer’s workshop I attended with Richard Paul Evans, he asked if a client has ever asked me to change anything. My response was, “Of course. This is for posterity and I would never want to hurt someone. And not everything a client tells me is appropriate for public consumption. Sometimes passages need to be reworded or taken out and that’s the right thing to do.”
5. Reading out loud is poignant.
Back to the client I gave the book to yesterday. As I read his life story to him, his eyes were misty. Keep in mind that this is a 77-year-old man who lived a life of adventure. He has been a man’s man, yet the experience was emotional for him. The experience felt poignant for me too, and that is why the day we got to read it together may have been even better than the day I gave him the final product. Even though I mark up pages with mundane scratches and edits, it is an intimate experience.
Do you read your drafts out loud? If not, try it!
Do you read the words out loud as part of your own writing process? If not, I encourage you to try it, and predict you will do it forevermore.
Do you have other tricks to share? How do you take feedback? Please comment below because I am always trying to learn and improve my process.
Rhonda Lauritzen is a professional biographer, teacher and author on telling personal stories. She is the Founder of Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story and before that she served as a Vice President at the Ogden-Weber Technical College. However, it was working in the family business—ultimately as CEO—that inspired her first book, Every Essential Element. That family business memoir is told in her mother’s voice. Her latest book, Remember When is written with Norma Kier and highlights the Kier family success story. Lauritzen loves learning and teaching the craft of how to tell your story, and lives with her husband and daughter in an 1890 Victorian they restored. Their home is in Ogden, Utah and she unwinds by unplugging in nature with her family.
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