Writing your Book, part X: The Read-Through


I’ve actually written about the read-through before — here and here — and will refer you to those pieces for some of the nuts and bolts stuff I like to do when revising a recently completed novel.  I’ve also written before about developing your internal editor — another post you might find helpful as you rework your manuscript. Stuart has written extensively about revisions here and here and here.  And finally, Catie covered similar ground in this post not all that long ago.

A couple of things should pop out at you as you look at the posts I’ve referenced here.  First, when you read my approach and Stuart’s and then Catie’s you’ll notice that while there are some similarities in our processes, there are also marked differences.  This is another of those MW patented “No-right-way-to-do-this” moments.  I could point to posts by Faith and Misty and A.J. that touch on this topic, too.  We approach writing and rewriting in different ways, but we all wind up with clean, readable stories.  The second thing you should notice is that we at MW write about revising and self-editing quite a bit.  Why?  Because it is absolutely essential to good writing.  So despite what I just said, this is decidedly NOT a “No-right-way-to-do-this” topic.  I don’t usually make blanket statements, but I will here:  You cannot be an effective and successful writer unless you learn to revise your own work.  There are different approaches, to be sure, but this is not a part of the process you can ignore or give short shrift.

I handed in Thieftaker in April after doing the most thorough and exhaustive read-through and revise I’ve ever done.  It wasn’t that the manuscript was in need of more repair than others I’ve completed — in point of fact it wasn’t.  I am convinced that this is one of the best things I’ve written; I believe it could be a huge book for me.  And that’s why I revised so diligently:  I wanted to be certain that I had gotten it right, that I’d really nailed it.

Please keep in mind as you read the rest of this, that I took four weeks away from the book before I began the read-through, and as you might have noticed from last week’s “Writing Your Book” post, I’m not the only MW writer who will tell you that distancing yourself from your novel is a key part of the revision process.

I began the Thieftaker read-through by printing out the novel so that I could work off a paper copy rather than reading the book on my computer screen.  I realize that in one of my past posts, I said something along the lines of “I sometimes do my read-throughs on the screen — I’ll print the book out if it needs a lot of work.”  I regret saying that.  I will never revise a novel on screen again.  Reading a hard copy of the manuscript allows me to see so much more.  It allows me to scribble in the margins and cross things out and in all ways attack what I’ve written.  I believe that when I read and revise on the screen I gloss over more — it is (for me) a lazier approach.  I recommend that you print out your work, too.  If you simply can’t — no printer, not enough paper or ink, whatever — I would recommend that you follow this next piece of advice . . .

Once the book was printed, I then proceeded to read the entire manuscript — all 450 pages — aloud.  It took me several days, and I wound up hoarse.  But I found passages that looked good on paper but didn’t actually read all that well.  To be honest, I’m not sure how that works — how a written phrase would sound so much more awkward when spoken.  But it’s something I’ve noticed before.  I also noticed words and expressions that I overused, turns  of phrase that I fell in love with during the writing phase and that I went back to again and again.  In a word (Faith’s word):  Crutches.  Reading my manuscripts aloud is something I’ve done for a while now, and it has made me a much better editor.

I then did a long, long series of universal searches for other crutches that my editor has pointed out to me in past manuscripts.  “Smile”s, “nod”s, “gaze”s, and a bunch of others.  I didn’t get rid of every one of them.  Sometimes those words work — that’s how they become crutches in the first place.  They work once or twice, and suddenly we’re going back to them again and again.  But I did get rid of many of them, finding either that there were better, less lazy ways to convey what I was after, or that I was simply filling space and that [key phrase coming] Less was actually More.

You can tell from all of this that the “read-through” is actually far more than is sounds like.  I use the term to describe the polishing stage of the book process.  As I’ve said before, I want my novel to be as clean as possible when I hand it in to my agent and editor (or my beta readers).  I want to clean up the stylistic and mechanical stuff so that they can focus their attention on more important matters.

And this brings me to the most important part of the read-through.  Do not — DO NOT — kid yourself into thinking that, just because you have revised your work and caught lots of problems, your book is “finished.”  As I mentioned at the outset, my read-through of Thieftaker was the most exhaustive I’ve ever done.  And yet, this week I got comments back from my agent (the wonderful Lucienne Diver), and though she loved the book, she also found plenty of places where it needed work.  And I agree with her on just about every one.  You can only find so much when you read your own work.  Creating that distance helps.  So does reading the book aloud and editing on a paper copy.  But the fact is that even once you’ve done all these things, you still remain too close to your own writing.  You need other readers to tell you what works for them and what doesn’t.  And you need to listen to their criticisms with an open mind and a willingness to see the faults in your creation.

None of us is perfect; no book is perfect.  The read-through isn’t intended to to make a story or novel flawless.  Rather, it is one step among many that, we hope, will help us make our work as good as it can be.

David B. Coe


20 comments to Writing your Book, part X: The Read-Through

  • Mikaela

    Sound advice as always, David. I think I will try the reading the whole manuscript aloud. Oh, also if you print out the manuscript don’t forget to add page numbers. Makes it much less confusing. Some day I will get better on following my own advice. Heh.

  • I’m curious if you fall into this — sometimes while reading my work aloud, I start to get sick of my own voice. I suppose it’s because I’m listening to myself more carefully than I normally would and that I’m not speaking but rather using my “reading” voice. It seems weird to me that this happens, so am I weird or are we all? Let’s keep the answer to the read-through and not weirdness in general! 😉

  • Mikaela, yes! Page numbers are essential. Great addition, thanks.

    [Must. Not. Comment. On. Stuart. Being. Weird…] Actually I do know what you mean. I try to focus on the words I’m reading rather than on the sound of my voice, but it’s not always easy. And I also find that my daughters think my out loud read-throughs are strange and deserving of much ridicule. Hazards of the profession….

  • Beatriz

    This idea of reading the work aloud and being distracted by the sound of your voice has me curious. Have you tried having some of your beta readers read the piece onto a recorder for you? Perhaps during that “cooling off” period, so their voices aren’t taxed by doing it in huge chunks. Then the oral version would be ready when you are, without the distraction of the sound of your own voice.

    Of course then one of the dangers is that we don’t always read what’s on the page. Our brain will fill in and smooth over certain mistakes. Hopefully the fill-in-the-blank mistakes are things you easily catch during your pass of the written version.

  • I totally agree with the readability comment, David. Reading is a passion of mine and usually it is a solitary thing much to the dismay of my wife. So in an effort to meet her halfway and share my reading with her, I will sit and read her the books that I read which I think she will enjoy as well. Unexpected to me, I found that some books were incredibly more “readable” than others despite being fine when I read them silently to myself. Robert Jordan… Terry Prachett… both read smoothly. Scott Lynch on the otherhand is like trying to read a story in a foreign languauge sometimes. I came to notice that the stories that I enjoyed most when I read silently also read most comfortably aloud.

    The way you mention doing this as part of the revision process is a MUST for any writer who wants to reach the heights of a great storyteller.

  • Deb S

    Can we do the read through with an accent? Epic fantasy, for instance, sounds much better with an English accent:)

  • Absolutely agree about reading aloud. Dialogue particularly just can’t be trusted if you don’t give it voice. For me it’s also crucial that you do this before you know the book too well because that allows you to cheat as you read: injecting pauses, vocal inflection etc. that makes it sound much more interesting than it really is. That’s why I totally agree that some time away from the book is essential, stops the work from crystalizing in your head and allows you to read what is actually there, not what you think should be.

  • Reading aloud has helped me spot errors I wouldn’t otherwise notice. I should remember to do it more often. The cats seem to enjoy it, even though I do sometimes get funny looks from the neighbours …

  • Beatriz, that’s an intriguing idea. I do think that having another voice read the book aloud “to us” could be helpful. This is an odd example, but in listening to the Jim Dale version audio version of the Harry Potter books, I’ve noticed quirks in Rowling’s writing that I didn’t notice when reading her books to myself. The problem would be that the read-through as I do it is not so direct. I reread sections, try different wordings, rewrite sections and then reread them. Then again, nothing in what you’ve suggested would prevent that, and in fact, it might make those parts easier to deal with, since I won’t be sick of my voice. Very interesting idea. Thanks!

    Mark, Nancy and I used to read books to each other, too. It can actually be quite romantic, quite apart from the reading itself. But I digress…. I agree that some books lend themselves to this better than others. I seem to remember Guy Kay’s work and the Mary Stewart King Arthur books being particularly “readable.” And I think that this revision exercise makes my books more readable in the sense that you mean.

    Deb, yes! I sometimes find myself slipping into accents as I read. I did it with the Thieftaker read-through, as well as with the Southlands books. My default is actually a Scottish brogue, though after seeing how cool my kids and wife thought A.J. was when they met him at ConCarolinas, I’m now working on my Manchester accent….

    I agree, A.J. Reading aloud is absolutely essential for checking my dialogue. Even if I don’t read all of my exposition aloud with other books, I ALWAYS read the dialogue out loud, and not only in revision. I often will speak dialogue aloud as I write it into my drafts. That is, in my opinion, the most aural part of a book — it just has to sound right. And this is the best way to check that.

    Moira, I really meant what I said in my first comment. My kids really do laugh at me about this. But as you say, it helps you find problems that remain hidden otherwise. Don’t have cats, but we have a mouse problem right now. I wonder if they are historical fantasy readers drawn into the house by my reading of Thieftaker during the spring….

  • It has long been documented (though not entirely understood) that one finds more errors and flubs when reading hard copy than when reading from a computer monitor. I’m sure somebody is undertaking a study to find just why this happens, though initial examination suggests that it has in part to do with the “enfolding focus” one has with a book that you don’t get with a monitor. Perhaps results are different with Kindles and iPads, which you hold in a manner more similar to a book.

    Better than reading aloud yourself is to get some dedicated acquaintance to read aloud to you. As the author, of course you know how a passage is meant to be phrased and will supply what is necessary but implicit only to you. Almost as good (and perhaps in some ways even better) is letting a computer read it to you–if you can stand it. The near monotone of MS Word’s “Speak Selection” function, for instance, is particularly merciless and revealing–which really is the point.

  • Excellent post David. As always. I’ve paid the price a time or two when I leave out one of these steps — the *put-it-away* step and the hard-copy step.

    In the long-lamented critique group to which I belonged for some years, we figured out that the author should not always read his own work aloud because the writer’s voice sometimes came through too clearly. On one memorable occassion, one writer was reading her work aloud and we all started laughing — which ticked her off, and justifiably so. It was utterly rude. But we were laughing so hard no one could explain. I (pretty sure it was me) finally was able to read the passage aloud without her voice. It as a section about bread and fruit, and the MC was patting her loaves — which should not be an erotic passage. But it was, once I started reading just the words aloud. It took bread and fruit in new, unexpected directions. I’m not sure she ever forgave me! But she did revise the passage.

    All that was down memory lane. But it proved the point about reading aloud. Now my first beta (my mom) reads my mscpts aloud to her hubby. She catches all sorts of things for me long before I start my first revision process on a finished mscpt.

  • Wolf, I’ve never heard the phrase “enfolding focus”, but I know from my own experience that reading a hard copy allows me to see errors I would otherwise miss. It would be interesting to read research on the subject. As to having someone else read an ms. to you (or having your computer do it) I would go back to my response to Beatriz’s similar suggestion. I think it would be helpful to hear my work read by someone else, though also intimidating. I actually have an audio version of ROBIN HOOD, sent to me by my editor. I’ve been afraid to listen. I guess the biggest problem for me is that the read-through is part of my initial editing process and I will not allow anyone to see my work until I’ve finished it. So either I have to read it myself, or I have to get my computer to read it to me. (A suggestion I like very much, btw.) Thanks!

    Faith, thank you. Your crit group example just reinforces for me what I said to Wolf, in the graph above. I don’t like to share anything I’ve written until I’ve done a read-through (or two) myself. I’m just too self-conscious about my unedited work.

  • I have Roxi read to me, and we discuss every ‘mistake’ exhaustively then move on with the reading. I seem to focus more when she is reading.

  • It’s great that she’s able to help you out with your work, Wade, and also that you’re able to work so effectively with her there. I’m not sure I could do that.

  • For any of you who had trouble getting on to MW today — it was likely server problems. I coudl read (sometimes) but not comment until later in the afternoon. Which did not make my MW addiction happy at all.

  • Bill Hause

    David, do you find that you add tone to dialogue that is not actually in the story because you know the story well? I understand that is what the distance is for but I find that I know the characters and story so well that I am putting emotion into the dialogue when I read aloud that isn’t there…the writing says…said–not more visible terms that I have been advised to stay away from…

  • Thanks for the public service announcement, Faith. I meant to make one earlier but then got wrapped up in writing….

    Bill, I try my best to draw upon the writing itself for whatever emotion I put into my read through of dialogue and other aspects of the manuscript. As you say, that’s what the time away from the manuscript is for — it forces me to consider the text rather than whatever knowledge of story and character that I bring to the book as the author. But that distance is the hardest thing to come by in this process, and often I have to depend on my other readers to tell me when my emotional set-up works and when it doesn’t. I can get some distance, but it’s still my book. 4 weeks or 6 weeks can’t change that. Neither can 6 months or a year. Again, that’s why additional readers are so important. I’m not sure that’s a very helpful answer.

  • @ Faith–I’d wondered. Tried half the day to read comments on Edmund’s post before it finally let me in. Figured it was a site issue.

  • Just a side FYI here, the absolute best book I have ever read aloud is Terry Pratchett’s A HAT FULL OF SKY. It is one of his Wee Free Men books. Those critters speak in a Scottish Highland accent. You don’t read that book, you perform it. It was a blast!

  • Sounds like great fun, Mark. Thanks for the tip.