Reading Aloud

This week, we spent almost all of the 4.5 hours of my Tuesday night class sharing our writing. It always amazes me how much unspoken feedback you can get just from noticing the atmosphere in the room when your work is being read out loud.

If the story is working, the silence in the room is palpable.  There’s a stillness; an intensity, and you can almost feel people listening closely.  When it’s not working, people fidget.  They discreetly check their watches.  They stifle yawns.  Even though we’re all polite to one another, the body signals don’t lie.

The program at Columbia does not run a traditional workshop where your work is read in advance by your classmates and then critiqued.  We don’t even have copies of student work in front of us when we listen to it, so most of the time when your work is read aloud, people are hearing it for the first time. And first impressions are often dead-on.

It’s always interesting to see what those first impressions reveal.  Sometimes people will laugh at parts that you didn’t intend to be funny (which can be a good thing), and sometimes they won’t laugh at parts that you did (which can’t).  Sometimes they’ll pick up on things you didn’t even realize you were doing, and other times they’ll miss things you thought you’d made clear.

It took me a long time to become comfortable with hearing my work read aloud and then discussed, but now I find it invaluable. The feedback I get in class, both spoken and unspoken, can reveal more to me about a story than I’d ever be able to figure out on my own.

If you’re in an MFA or writing group, I’m curious as to what kinds of workshop methods you’ve used.  How does workshopping affect your revision process?

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6 thoughts on “Reading Aloud

  1. Dana

    Also… I think to really get the vibe going good, the writer is wise to reach back through a long history of her own writing.

    For example, say you were a singer. You practice a lot of what other people have already established: voice exercises, scales and arpeggios, written music, singing along with recordings, etc. The more you do what others have done before the performance, the more powerful the performance can be.

    I think it is the same in writing. If you reach back and use words you initially wrote last year, and revised once six months ago, and revise them again, those words/ideas/feelings/echoes have a certain history. There is power in that history, and while it doesn’t make much logical sense, that power can come through when the piece is read at a workshop.

  2. Dana

    I like what you say about the atmosphere in the room. I value that experience more so than the verbal feedback. I also like to have somebody else read my piece so I can feel the others without being distracted by my reading performance. I always volunteer to read somebody else’s work, because there is something to be said for reading out loud, you can feel connection and vibe differently when reading out loud, I suppose.

    I think reading at a writing group can be like singing in a choir. In a choir, you are all working on tuning your sound waves together into something harmonious. In a critique group, even though there is only one voice, I believe there is something in the group being tuned as well. The listeners can understand what is happening in the piece on a basic level, but they can also become involved and "tuned-in" to the underlying voice or whatever part of herself the author put into it as she was writing.

    (I don’t think this is the ONLY way to think about critique group, but I’ve lately been taking yoga classes and reading about intuition and sixth sense LOL)

  3. Eliza Fogel

    Unfortunately, people are often unaware of the messages they’re sending. As I gave a presentation last week, I watched a student close his eyes, suck his thumb (discreetly, of course) and softly snore. It took every last decent ounce of me not to kick his m-f’in chair. This may be why I DREAD hearing my work read aloud. I’m usually turning in very rough first drafts and I’m well aware that it’s not my best work…but must everyone else be subjected to my experiments?? It just leaves me hanging in the air, exposed and feeling squirmy and unnatural because the work read isn’t ready to be shared. I realize that’s why I’m sitting in the classroom and not thumbing through the pages of my own book, fawning over the content. But crap, sharing work like that can feel supremely raw. Like walking barefoot through witch grass.


  4. Kristan

    Interesting… Do you read your own work aloud, or does someone else read it? In our crit group, we get to choose which method we prefer for our work, and I think each one can reveal different things. When you read, you control how it sounds – so you get the reactions. When someone else reads, you see where they get tripped up – you get to listen and react.

    Either way, honestly, I’m not much for auditory retention. I can’t focus on things I’m listening to – in fact, I’m extraordinarily good at NOT listening to things. So for me, listening to a work is very hard to respond critically to. Something to keep in mind as you read people’s body language…

    That said, I remember watching people’s reactions in our undergrad program, and you’re right: sometimes the body says more than the mouth. 😉

  5. KatieAx

    I’m in undergrad and our workshop is the traditional read the work ahead of time and discuss. One of the hardest parts for me is staying silent when questions are posed. Rather than instantly answering everything, I’m forced to let them work it out. Some of the conclusions they draw shock me (that’s both good and bad).



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