Reading as a Means to Clearer Prose

by Fawn McManigal

We writers hear the recommendation all the time: read everything you can get your hands on, then read some more. Maybe you’ve also been advised to read outside the genre in which you write: articles, obituaries, recipes, stats. Read! Read! Read! I agree. Read the works of others. But don’t forget to read your own work--out loud, in front of a group of peers.

If you’re the type of person who reads aloud during revision, congratulations. Hearing our words permits us to see the language on the page more clearly. This practice of reading to ourselves, however, does not afford the same level of care and precision that occurs when we anticipate reading that same piece to an audience.

This truth became clear when I was asked to read one of my essays at a reception for the journal in which it had been published. During mock readings of this piece, I was surprised by the number of times I stopped reading because something disrupted the story’s flow. Several sentences required that I move a clause, add or remove a comma, or insert a more suitable word--all to a piece that I, and the editor of the journal, had considered finished. Had I edited in this way prior to submission, the essay would have been tighter.

Though the act of reading your work in front of your peers may be terrifying, it won’t ruin you. For those feeling hesitant, try to start simply. Select a venue where authors are limited to roughly five minutes of reading time. It takes about two minutes to read one page of prose aloud. Choose a piece or number of poems you think you can read, without rushing, in the specified amount of time. Then practice. Time yourself. If you don’t finish in time, edit the work to fit or choose another piece. Practice some more. Then go rock your reading. Afterward, you’ll want to do it again.