The benefits of reading aloud

My previous post noted repetition in a book’s opening page. This one will include an example on the same subject from a previous post but from a slightly different angle.

Is your prose working well? One way to find out is to read it aloud and, no, you don’t need to be in front of a mirror to do this. If, despite your excellent lung capacity, you find you run out of breath before finishing some of your finer sentences, it may be that they are overly long and complicated – though why you would emulate the style of late Henry James I wouldn’t know.

So you may read aloud. I do that quite a lot, though always in my head now to avoid waking the cat or alienating cara sposa, who has enough to put up with as it is. One result is that I read quite slowly compared to many – reading aloud and speed reading don’t get on. But I get a better handle on the author’s writing style, or so I like to think.

One thing I am sure of, though, is that if we used our ears more, physical or mental, then we would hear those accidental repetitions we might otherwise miss and our work would be better for it.

Below is a scan from the second page of a novel. If the author (and her editor) had heard what had been written, the word ‘this’ might not have occurred so often. It pays to listen. ___________________________________________________________________

“mistaken in making of this a flying visit. My mother marvelled for days over this, with no resentment. It was less a visit than a visitation. It was never repeated.

The other friend, the one I thought of as Betty Pollock, though that might not have been her name, was less opulent, but kinder. This friend we actually journeyed to see, an event so rare that I remembered it. This visit occasioned no wistful comments from my mother, probably because Betty Pollock was not someone of whom she had learned to be slightly afraid. She was even rather unattractive, though clearly was not concerned by this, and in any event her large plain features were transformed by her dazzling smile. The other thing I noted about her was that she was happy. This was mysteri­ously apparent. I experienced it with relief, though I did not understand it. Now of course I can identify it as a state of steady satisfaction combined with an absence of longing. This must have been less the gift of her husband than of Betty Pollock herself, her smile signalling her contentment with her lot to all within her radius. She too had very red lips, though her hair was grey. She too was eager to reminisce, having nothing to hide. ‘Yet my mother seemed inhibited in her presence, perhaps because of the contrast between them. I think that Betty Pollock vanished from the scene shortly after this visit: her husband was anxious to leave London and move back to Swanage, where he had grown up. I think my mother missed her, though not as much as she missed Dolly Edwards, who remained out of touch.

They had once been part of the same set, though this was a modest suburban affair, formed largely by parents who knew each other as neighbours or friends, and vigilant elder broth­ers who did duty as escorts when no other was available. I see Dolly as the bold one, Betty as the poor one, and my mother as the beauty, but whose beauty was undermined by”


Does anyone out there know who the author is?  Answers on a postcard please . . .

Pay attention to your interior text

It is easy to find articles and blog posts dealing with the importance of cover design. If a design is inappropriate, amateur or dreadful no one will buy it whose first encounter with the book is its cover. The assumption is that if the cover is bad the contents will be too.

The interior text is another matter. There are articles on this subject too, but not so many, and they can be a little dry. Why is that? Because the subject is a little dry and that can’t be helped. There is no way round it. Though less exciting than eye-balling graphic images of vampires, dragons, space ships and malevolent corkscrews, the quality of the text must be taken seriously, because a reader coming across a few errors in the opening chapter will not be impressed.

What sort of thing are we talking about here? One example. There is a difference between a hyphen and a dash. In fact, there are two types of dash, the ‘n’ dash and the ‘m’ dash, the ‘m’ dash being longer. We might use a hyphen to create a compound word. Okay, so I drink the occasional brandy, but only as a pick-me-up. (For purely medicinal purposes, as they used to say in the old books and films.) I might use dashes to insert an addition into a sentence. Well I’ll be cornswaggled – as my old grandpappy used to say.

Now inserting a hyphen is easy, there is a hyphen on your keyboard – but you will look in vain for ‘n’ or ‘m’ dashes on your keyboard. So where do they come from? Probably from your word-processing software but – and it’s a big ‘but’ – your software may not always get it right. You have to check, you have to use your eyes. Now let us say your book is 350 pages long, that’s a lot of checking. And if you read those 350 pages absorbed by the narrative then you will miss most of the errors they contain. Proof-reading calls for discipline and a capacity to withstand boredom. Some of us have this, more of us do not.

Here’s another example to catch the unwary. One of your characters is speaking and her sentence tails off.

‘You can’t possible mean that, Herbert  . . .’

But if by mistake (and we all make mistakes) you leave a space after the last point before inserting the closing inverted comma, look what happens.

‘You can’t possible mean that, Herbert  . . . ‘

Yes, your inverted comma is now the wrong way round. Come on, I hear you say, I wouldn’t fall for that one! Well, maybe you wouldn’t, but I have just found this error in a novel where the author goes so far as to thank her editor. And this was not the only error to pass her editor by.

I know of an author who had a team of eight ‘beta readers’ checking an advance copy of her text. I read the published version and found mistakes. But if I had written the book myself I might well have missed them too because the text is already in my head. It is usually easier to spot textual errors in other people’s work than in your own.

In my second book I referred to several television sets tuned ‘to the sane channel’. I did not spot this error myself, but another author did and, thanks to her, it is corrected. How she spotted it I do not know, since the words ‘sane’ and ‘same’ are remarkably similar. But, as you can see, they have given me a chance to bring the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’ back into the conversation. And it’s worth noting here that since the word ‘sane’ exists and since the phrase ‘sane channel’, however nonsensical, is perfectly grammatical, neither a spell check not a grammar check would have brought this mistake to my attention. It had to be seen to be identified. (Yes, I’m really hitting the high spots now.)

About the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Since the entire sentence is in brackets, the closing bracket comes after the full stop. However, if only part of a sentence is in brackets, and that part ends the sentence, then the closing bracket would come before the full stop. Gripping stuff! You’re on the edge of your seat, right?

But these are errors on the small scale. There is also the question of paragraph and page layout. How does it look when your chapter ends with a full left hand page and only one word on the facing right hand page? Not too good. Here we are entering the territory of widows and orphans, a term covering words and phrases left metaphorically dangling. There is some dispute over precise definitions, but avoiding bad or unsightly paragraph and page layout will be difficult, bordering on the impossible, if you are relying entirely on word-processing software to do it.

To give some indication of the factors involved, the following is from Wikipedia.

Writing guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, generally suggest that a manuscript should have no widows and orphans even when avoiding them results in additional space at the bottom of a page or column.[4] However, in its 16th edition (2011) the Chicago Manual of Style suggests a new convention in which pages may end with the first line of a new paragraph.[5] Some techniques for eliminating widows include:

  • Forcing a page break early, producing a shorter page;
  • Adjusting the leading, the space between lines of text (although such carding or feathering is usually frowned upon);
  • Adjusting the spacing between words to produce ‘tighter’ or ‘looser’ paragraphs;
  • Adjusting the hyphenation of words or characters within the paragraph;
  • Adjusting the page’s margins;
  • Subtle scaling of the page, though too much non-uniform scaling can visibly distort the letters;
  • Rewriting a portion of the paragraph;
  • Reduce the tracking of the words;
  • Adding a pull quote to the text (more common for magazines); and
  • Adding a figure to the text, or resizing an existing figure.

So if you are one of the many people who finds all of this challenging, and if you are self-publishing, you might consider using the services of an editor/proof-reader rather than, say, buying an interior text service from Create Space. A named person who knows what he or she is doing and is easily contactable by email, rather than an anonymous member of a team you cannot contact directly.

There are obviously quite a few people out there offering editing and proof-reading services. I only have experience of one, but have found her excellent. Her name is Sarah Holroyd and she is to be found at Sleeping Cat Books.

I should perhaps add that I have no beneficial interest in Sleeping Cat Books and also that the various specifics mentioned in this post I have learned the hard way.