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Reading aloud for a sense of distance

Amanda Mitchison

For three years, I have been advising students to edit an essay by printing it out and reading it aloud to somebody while marking the bits that don’t work. I tell them that I have someone I read all my work to. She is a novelist in her eighties. Sometimes I read out a sentence that seemed perfectly reasonable when I was writing it, but when I say it out loud it’s a horror. It might be clunky, ill-judged, out of character or lose the dramatic tension in a scene. Usually my friend doesn’t say anything—she doesn’t need to. When I glance up, she is just looking at me over her glasses.

Until now, I thought this ‘reading aloud’ technique – which so many RLF Consultant Fellows recommend – was merely about gaining distance from your work. Of course, your listener will point out when a part doesn’t make sense or is repetitive or boring. But 90 per cent of the work is done by you, hearing yourself read your own piece. I advise my students to read to someone else because it is weird to read out loud to an empty room, and if you do so, your voice will fizzle away to nothing after a couple of paragraphs. You need that little element of performance.

Recently, while reading a new book to my friend, I realised something deeper and subtler is also going on. Yes, you as the reader are doing most of the work, and the process of reading aloud does give you an extra notch of distance away from your own writing. But I now believe that a type of imaginative transference is also taking place. When you read aloud to somebody else, you put yourself in their shoes. You enter a slightly different cast of consciousness, listening in sympathy with them and hearing your work as they would hear it. For once, you are truly outside your own writing. You have, in effect, become your own best critic.

19 March 2020

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