Reading Aloud

I’m in the midst of one of the most grueling yet rewarding projects of my writing life, something that has required me to spend six to eight hours each day sitting in front of a microphone, headphones over my ears, in my darkened office. My ears ache, my body is stiff–I do a lot of stretching on my breaks–and I’m getting tired of listening to my own voice. But I’ve just finished Chapter Six, so I only have three more to read.


I’m narrating the audio version of my memoir, Walking Nature Home, for Redwood Audiobooks. I’ve always wanted to read my own writing for an audio book, and now that I am, I understand why most authors don’t. It’s an exhausting, lengthy task. Each chapter (18-20 typeset pages in this case) takes me about a day to record and do the rough audio editing, even though the finished version runs only between 40 and 45 minutes.

What takes so long? Getting it right. The actual read of a chapter takes somewhere between an hour and a half and two hours. When I stumble over a word, or get the tone or emphasis wrong, or make another error–or a loud motorcycle goes by outside–I start the sentence over again. Sometimes I go back to the beginning of a paragraph if that makes a “cleaner” break to make sure I haven’t changed the tone or volume of my voice.

The rough edit takes about twice times as long as the read time, which means three to four hours of careful listening, deleting each bad or duplicate part of the soundtrack and pasting the two cut edges together, just the way we used to do with real tape and a razor blade back in the days before recordings went digital, listening carefully to the mend, and then moving on… I do the rough edit myself using Garageband, Apple’s surprisingly powerful audio editing program that came free with my Macintosh. It works just like the sound boards I’ve used in real studios.


I could rent a recording studio, but that costs money, and I’d rather spend those hours in the comfort of my own office. So Richard designed and built a portable microphone table from scrap lumber, plus a nifty homemade foam baffle around my directional microphone to help absorb stray sound. (The mike is a Blue Yeti USB model that plugs right into my Mac laptop, for those who want to know the technical stuff).

My “studio” isn’t sound-proof, but it works quite well, except for the occasional passing ya-hoo with a loud vehicle. That round black screen in front of the mike in the photo above, by the way, is a spit screen to soften the explosion of sound that comes with ‘P’s and other hard consonants. (Thanks to David Tipton, musician and sound consultant, for setting me up, getting the spit screen, and for editing my audio tracks.)

There’s more to “getting it right” though. To read this memoir in a way that my voice acts as the reader’s guide through the twists and turns of the story, I have to be “in” it. Which means it’s grueling emotionally, because I’m reliving the events as I read them.

Why do it? For the gift of experiencing my work anew: the tone of the words, the cadence and rhythm of the sentences and paragraphs, the flow of the story itself. Immersing myself in the work gives me a richer experience of it. I’m learning from Walking Nature Home all over again, seeing new realizations in this story of love and redemption.

Writers, take note: reading your work aloud to yourself is the single best technique you’ll ever learn for editing your own writing. Hearing your words, you experience the piece in new ways, and your understanding of your work grows richer and deeper. (Not to mention that you notice–and can thus correct–stupid word choices, awkward sentences, and confusing narrative threads!)

That’s the magic of reading out loud.