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I've heard some advice on writing, which says that writers should read their drafts aloud, in order to hear any flaws in the sound of their writing. But after I've done this, how should I change my draft? As many books suggest, writing should not only use strong verbs but also use words economically. But what if my strong, economical prose doesn't flow? What then should I change in my draft? The choice of words, the order of words, the part of speech?

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    I think you've edited your question enough ;) – Nai54 Apr 23 at 21:16
  • Thank you. I can do a lot better with writing though. I think. Also, I don't want to read my drafts aloud. It's good advice but I can hear what I read in my head. – garbus Apr 24 at 22:58
  • Sometimes it hard to make my writing flow. Other times it's easier. As for why this is, I don't know. – garbus Apr 24 at 23:08
  • But I'm not going to continue writing short sentences all the time as I'm doing now. – garbus Apr 24 at 23:12
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The order of words tends to have grammatical restrictions that don't allow for you to change this. Everything else however, especially for a first draft, can/should be changed.

The idea behind reading aloud is that by hearings one's words read out loud, one notices what sounds good and what doesn't. For me, it takes a few days before I can see these "errors" in my writing, so make sure to give it some time, before returning to writing. Here a few, more or less, objective guidelines:

  • Every consecutive sentence should be of different length. This keeps the writing interesting and engaging, and excites the reader because they won't know what comes next.

  • Replacing simple words with more complex ones is good, but don't overdo it; Often, the simplest words are best. If the complex word does not serve any other purpose than to tick off the requirement, replace it with a simpler one. Else, choose the right complex word (e.g. I ran/walked/stampeded/speeded/wandered/trudged to school). Also make sure that you don't use the same complex verbs twice in a paragraph, unless it makes more sense when it's the same (I used the word "simple" multiple times to underline the duality of complex vs simple words)

  • That being said, when you have a sentence starting with a conjunctive, do not allow the next few sentences start with one as well.

  • Unless several paragraphs have passed, do not use the same conjunctives (while, although, yet, and, etc.). I am guilty of this myself, and it's tough to go around this sometimes.

  • Use few adverbs (astonishingly, guiltily, happily), and instead say what a character does/scenery is, that makes it astonishing, or guilty or happy. Again, tough, but in my experience, most of my edits are because of this rule.

  • Another way to improve flow is for every sentence to be followed by a sentence that describes what the reader is interested in next. I know you may want to hear an example for this, so I would, for example, dedicate this sentence to giving you one.

I haven't read your manuscript, so I cannot give you more feedback. But these guidelines take me very far in improving my writing.

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    The “complex words” rule should only be applied when you can make your writing more specific – which you almost always can. The primary aim is to convey as much as possible, not to show off your vocabulary. An unnecessarily elongated sequence of graphemes merely irritates the reader. – wizzwizz4 Mar 14 at 19:33
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    Final guideline: feel free to break any of those guidelines if there's a purpose behind it. The things you should avoid, such as repetition, can also be powerful tools when used with intent. – Maciej Stachowski Mar 15 at 11:10
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    @wizzwizz4, I'd replace the "replace simple words for complex words" with "replace unconcise words for more concise words". No reader is ever helped by more complex words than needed, and personally, I would put such a book down quite fast... Complexity in character and plot? Yay! Complexity in words and sentences? Nay! – Erk Mar 15 at 22:27
  • @Erk Absolutely. Concision is vital; synonyms exist for a reason. – wizzwizz4 Mar 15 at 22:29
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Anything that makes it sound better.

This is never easy and can really only be learned by practice, and playing it by ear. Altering word choices is one technique. Another is altering the word order and sometimes the part of speech, but you have to remember to keep the sense of the passage. Still sometimes if you write

They danced all night and were tired the next day

it will work better if you write

Dancing all night left them tired the next day.

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    There's a line in the fontforge design manual about trusting your judgement "You are fully qualified to correct for these illusions". It is the same when reading back a piece of prose. You are fully qualified to judge if it flows or not. Because you can read for yourself the effect of the prose, and the effect of changing it, you can make the changes for yourself if you are able to trust your own impressions. – James K Mar 14 at 21:00
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Problems detected when reading a text aloud often fall into two categories (see below for some other ways to detect problems):

It could be a problem with grammar or spelling or missing words.

And the solution is easy; you fix the grammar, the spelling, the missing words. Programs like Word or Grammarly may help with that. If books on grammar aren't available...

Or, it could be that the "melody" of the text doesn't work or it just "sounds" wrong.

Basically, you fix that by changing the text until it does work.

Maybe cutting sentences apart? Merging them into one? Throwing them out completely? Or parts of them? Or adding an extra subordinate clause? Or move things around?

Was it a passive sentence? Fix that. Is it a problem with narrative or POV voice? Rewrite it with the right voice?

Or as you mention, replace adjectives and adverbs with nouns and verbs. Adding an odd adjective or adverb might also do the trick.

Or you replace words. Sometimes repeated words make the text stronger, sometimes they make it weaker.

What to do with a text when it doesn't work in this particular way cuts to the core of being a writer, and I only know of two ways to get better at it: practice and reading fiction.

Practice involves both practicing fixing broken texts, but of course, also practicing writing texts. When you've written and fixed enough texts (be it emails, short stories, blog posts, or novels) the "right flow" kind of get's stuck in your fingers. At least, that's how it feels to me... although, your eyes and ears may also have something to say about it.

Reading a lot of fiction will sooner or later get you to the point where you can look at a passage and go, "that's not how I would have done it, I'd ..." And that's when reading becomes writing...

Sidebar: Apart from that, you might want to choose your role models (who you read) based on what you want to achieve. If a readership is on your wish list, choosing authors that are being read, sold, and purchased by publishers today is paramount.

Classics from English class in school are, unfortunately only read because they are classics. Something profound is happening to people's reading habits today. You could blame film, TV, the Internet, or technology in general. Globalization? Things are changing. To stay relevant, we need to change with them.

The best comparison I can give is learning to swim. You need to learn it the right way (good instructions/teachers) or you'll learn to swim like a dog and you need practice. And then suddenly it becomes a reflex.

I think reading non-fictional books on writing might help, but I've read about half a meter of them, and (by my choice or the authors') very few of them would go into the specifics needed to know what to do, on the sentence-level, with a text that doesn't work. I don't think language books might either, but I've read less of those...

Sidebar: My tip for picking what non-fiction to read is to look at the author's fiction publication. They should at least have published more fiction than "how to write" non-fiction. They should have practiced actually writing fiction.

When I do run into trouble it could take anything from seconds to days for a solution to appear.

Sometimes things need to be mulled over. Sometimes more research, plotting, character building, worldbuilding, etc, can help in search of the answer. Sometimes it's just to distract me from the problem long enough to have an answer appear. I couldn't tell you which is which.

Other ways to check your text for "bugs"

This doesn't answer OP's question, but I feel it is of some importance still:

When it comes to reading out loud, especially from a paper copy of the text, two things happen; you see the text differently on paper, and you hear the text.

Sometimes just seeing the text on paper will tell you you're missing words or have other problems with the text. (I've tried with PDF:s and it seems to work similarly... however, I can't attest to what I can't see, so I guess I need to get myself a new printer soon...)

When it comes to reading aloud the flow or musicality (or lack thereof) becomes apparent. Or the text "sounds" wrong. (If you have enough experience).

Try reading aloud for a real or imagined listener, and you'll also become self-aware about some choices of words and structure and discover that they may not work.

Or record yourself reading the book and then listen to it. It's generally one or several of creepy/annoying/concerning so you keep a lookout for when you get more of that and that's a possible problem passage... (and no, not all texts can become audiobooks, so this may not work at all with your text...)

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