Monday, March 10, 2014

5 reasons why writers should listen to audiobooks


Of all the advice I can give aspiring authors, this is probably the only original bit I've got. Everything else is just me passing on tips I received, but this one... it's purely my own conclusion:

Audiobooks are a dynamite way to improve your writing.  

Here's five reasons why:
  1. Unlike reading printed text, you can't really skim. You've trained yourself over the years to skip the "boring bits", to the point where you may not even realize you're doing it anymore, or why. And, this may be affecting your own writing. With an audiobook you're forced to hang on every word the author wrote. No eye-wandering past those large wall-of-text description paragraphs. No accidental glimpse at the big reveal in that next big line of dialog. And as a result, you'll gain newfound appreciation for the words themselves.  
  2. It's about more than just the words, actually. It's also the cadence. The pace. That's not to say these things are absent when reading printed text, it's just that when heard in audio form there's a whole different dimension to it that helps you, the writer, understand and appreciate them. Over time, that extra knowledge will bleed into your own writing. For example I quickly learned how annoying it is when every line of dialog has a "he said" or "she said" after it. It's true these are often 'invisible' in printed form, but a chain of them can really bog down rapid-fire dialog. Recognizing this can lead you to finding better ways to add pauses between the spoken lines.
  3. You'll hear the words as you write them. It's often said that reading your own work-in-progress aloud is a great way to find flaws in it. What I've found after years of listening to audiobooks is that I hear the words in my head now as I write. Often, somewhat bizarrely but also quite wonderfully, this is in my favorite narrator's voice. This phenomenon does not quite substitute for an actual read-aloud, but it gets you maybe halfway there and helps you catch problems as you hammer out a draft.
  4. You'll read more. Hell, I'd hardly read anything these days if it wasn't for audiobooks. Between my own brisk writing schedule and dealing with two rambunctious young boys at home, often the only quiet time I can get is when I'm driving somewhere. Even in my brief stints I can get an extra book or two read per month this way. If you've got a commute you'll get even more time. There's a secondary bonus to this point, which is that once you've discovered some narrators you really enjoy, you'll seek out their other recordings no matter the genre. Breaking outside your usual genres = good thing!
  5. You'll gain new appreciation for a well-delivered reading. I've been to a number of author readings, and to say they vary in quality is an understatement. By no means do I count myself in the good column, far from it, in fact, but I'm getting better. The trick is recognizing this fact. I know very keenly what a bad narrator can do to an otherwise good book. I often think when authors do these readings that they have no idea how much the audience is squirming in their seats. We can't all be M. Todd Gallowglas, but a healthy dose of listening to great narrators reading great books will go a long way toward giving you something to emulate.

Note: 4 and 5 apply to non-aspiring writer types, too.  Ahem!

UPDATE: Regarding the "you can't skim" point in item #1 -- I'm talking about the natural jumps we make while reading printed text.  Those moments when the eye just naturally leaps past a paragraph our mind has subconsciously marked as full of unimportant information.  It's something I think all seasoned readers do.  Perhaps I'm wrong.  The point is, although yes you can technically skip chapters at the touch of a button, or simply "tune out" during a boring bit of narration, neither of these constitute a replacement for the "eye jump" type of skimming I am referring to. Skipping a chapter or fast-forwarding via a button is a conscious choice. You can analyze why you did it and that analysis can help your own writing.

You can find audiobooks at your local library, bookstore, or (of course) online. Some sites have deals where you get a free book for signing up to a trial of their subscription service, and many of these sites have steeply discounted books on sale frequently. I'm not going to call out specifics because monopolies suck, but I'm sure if you poke around you can find an audiobook that suits your preferences and pocketbook. The days of the 50$ 16-CD audiobook seem to be dying, and that's a good thing because it's the main reason most people never paid attention to them in the past, myself included. Most are now priced only slightly higher than the print or ebook equivalent, especially if you're using a subscription service.

Give one a try!  If there's a book you really love and reread often, try the audio version and see what new dimensions are added from the experience. Or, you know, give something new a spin.

One tip: If you listen via a specialized audiobook app, there is often the option to increase the playback speed. I find the originally recorded pace is often too lethargic. Some people complain that audiobooks don't hold their attention very well, and I suspect this is why. So try increasing the playback speed. I find a 1.25x rate works well as a blanket rule, but for some narrators even 1.5x is required. Go for a speed where the pace sounds natural to you, not where it sounds like the narrator is speed-talking, otherwise you lose some of the benefits I outlined above.

PS. I hope my homage to Beowulf at the beginning there wasn't too cheeky. It seemed appropriate, even if the famous opening to that poem may have been misinterpreted.


Greg Perkins said...

i agree - since I started out as a screenwriter/TV writer I always read my work out loud. Thanks for the good post.

Faith E. Hough said...

Great article--I totally agree. My family and I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and my husband and I (we're both writers) find that it is a great way to develop our craft. We notice the benefits in our children's writing and speech as well, and their reading comprehension is off the charts.
Do you have any favorite audiobooks you'd recommend?
P.S. Nice last name. :)

Jason M. Hough said...

Hey Faith! Happy to recommend some. What sort of genre do you like to read?

Nicky Reich said...
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