Tons of writing advice implores you to read your work aloud. You can hear the snags, the run-ons, the unwitting alliteration. You can hear when you used a word that doesn’t fit the tone or time period of the manuscript.
Not too long ago, I tried this with a twist. I’d already read the manuscript many times, both silently and aloud. But I took the opportunity to read it aloud to my three sons and two nieces, all between the ages of ten and thirteen.
I now call this edit by (soft) firing squad.
Kids are excellent listeners. You need not tell them to listen for mistakes. You need not tell them to pay attention to continuity. They do it by design, and they’ve been doing it all their lives, or for as long as they’ve been read to.
And they are not easy. Oh, they’re impressed. It’s like a warm bath of adoration when they come to realize you have strung together so many words. They have a knack for balancing love for you the person with critique of the work. They have not yet learned to be unhelpfully polite.
The rapid fire comes sooner or later. Hands shoot into the air: I don’t understand. I’m confused. What is this word? What happened to X? Or my personal favorite: Wait, when did Y get there? Wasn’t he missing?
They miss nothing. It is a step beyond word choice, beyond culling adverbs and discovering concision, beyond anything I’ve ever done before. It was a live preview into readership. When were they antsy and bored? When were they invested and unwilling for me to stop reading? When did something not click or seem less clear than I thought?
At no point did any of them say, “This story arc should be changed in these substantial ways.” They told me which characters they liked and why. Which characters failed to accomplish their purposes, though not in so many words. They told me when they were afraid for relationships, for character safety, for the outcomes. They told me when they were satisfied.
It was amazing.
As a second layer for me, my nieces are second generation on their father’s side. They perked up when they heard words from their second language. One said, “I always look in books for words I know, like a little wave.” The other said, “I can’t speak for everybody represented in your book, but I think you did a good job.” They are not representative of every character in the book or even every character like them. They cannot grant me absolution for any errors in representation. They do represent honesty for themselves and their own perspectives, because we’ve cultivated a relationship of it.
Edit by firing squad is not the first, the only, or the last edit. It was a terrific edit that gave me information in real time like no other edit to date has. And it sharpened aspects of the book I didn’t realize needed sharpening.
Is a live read edit something you would try?