The Best Writing Teacher You Can Get for $20

Filed in The Writing Life by on July 14, 2015 • views: 2884

Headphones on the old book. Concept of listening to audiobooks.I made a trip to Colorado last month.

From my place, that’s about a day’s worth of driving.

I’m not big on long road trips. I suffered a back injury many years ago, and though I’m fully recovered, my body still suffers when I sit for too long. Events required I push through in one day, though, so I knew I’d need something to keep me going. I decided to get an audiobook.

My choice:  Die Trying, by Lee Child—an author I had wanted to read, but hadn’t had a chance to, yet. Fourteen hours of CDs. Perfect for the trip down and back.

It took me awhile to get used to Child’s style. Short, simple sentences, ones that almost sound choppy to my ear, but that efficiently move an action scene, which in Child’s books, happen frequently. The book did what I hoped—kept my mind focused on the story, so I had little attention left for whatever aches and pains occurred in the later hours of the trip.

About a week later, I returned home and got back into my writing practice. Within a few minutes, I noticed something: Child’s voice in my ear. Not “his” voice, in particular, but his writing voice.

My action scenes moved a little more easily. His ability to describe a room hung with me, too—his way of dropping in the dimensions, the materials used to make the walls, the sounds around the building.

All I could think was: cool. By simply riding in the car and listening, I had learned something that improved my writing. Easily.

I hadn’t expected the effect, but I wasn’t really surprised. Back in 2013, I spent a week listening to master writers read from their works every night. I absorbed more about how to write during that week than I did in years of doing everything else a writer does to improve.

So why don’t we listen more often?

We Learn by Listening

I’ve been a music teacher for over 20 years. One thing that all good music teachers do is combine “listening” with other teaching methods.

We play with our students to help them hear how a line should sound. We send them home with professional recordings so they can absorb the “tone” of a particular instrument. We accompany them on the piano so they can hear how two parts should flow together. We send them to concerts, when we can, where they can hear accomplished soloists and ensembles.

Listening to how a good French horn sounds, for instance, can slingshot a student forward at a rapid pace, helping him achieve mastery on a piece much more quickly than he would any other way.

We learn a second language in a similar manner. If we take a class, we listen to the teacher speak. Often, we aren’t allowed to hear anything but the new language in class. We listen to recordings. We travel to locations where people speak the language. We immerse ourselves in it—not just through reading and study, but through our ears.

I think we should adapt more of these methods when practicing writing.

The “Ears” Are Important to a Writer

Talk to most accomplished writers and you’ll learn that they read their stuff out loud.

“Usually at the end of writing every chapter I’ll print out and read aloud,” says novelist Kamila Shamsie. “It’s about the sound of the sentences.” She doesn’t have to think about “why a particular clump of syllables sounds wrong to my ear. I just know that it does.”

Turns out the ears are extremely important to a writer. You need to be able to “hear” how your prose is sounding, and if you have a good ear, you can detect the problems just by listening. According to the “Writing Center” at the University of Northern Carolina, Chapel Hill, “When you read your draft out loud or listen to someone else read it, your brain gets the information in a new way, and you may notice things that you didn’t see before.”

Hearing your work out loud, you may find gaps in your explanations, clunky sentences, unrealistic dialogue, and other things you never noticed when reading quietly. Perhaps most importantly, it helps you better establish your writing voice.

“Listening to yourself—whether in the moment or recorded—more closely identifies the writing to YOU,” says writing guru Jane Friedman, “helps you think more about how this is YOUR story, and that it’s YOU who uniquely decides what story you want to tell.”

Writer Susan Orlean tweeted that it’s “the single best tool for self-editing.”

For me, though, it’s not just reading your work aloud that helps. If you’re serious about improving as a writer, you need to listen to other writers’ works read out loud.

Audiobooks Force You to Pay Attention

Audio books are great for commutes. You can get more books “read” by listening to them while driving, and maybe even while you’re walking, cleaning, or doing something else with your hands that prevents you from holding a book (or ereader). And getting more books read is a great way to become a better writer.

But it’s not just about how many books you get into your brain. Laura Hillenbrand, bestselling author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken, struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome. She takes medications that mask many of the symptoms, but still suffers from chronic vertigo and disorientation. When it gets bad, she can’t focus well enough to read.

So she turns to audiobooks.

According to New York Times reporter Wil S. Hylton, Hillenbrand has trouble focusing her eyes on the page during flare-ups of her condition. Over the last 15 years, she has listened to hundreds of audiobooks, and has stated she believes listening to audiobooks has improved her writing:

“It has taught me a lot more about the importance of the rhythm of language. Good writing has a musical quality to it, a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm. You can feel that much better when it’s read aloud.”

One other thing I notice when reading audiobooks: you have to tune in. Zone out for even a few seconds and you lose the train of the story. That’s good for developing focus, but also helps your brain really pay attention to the words, the rhythm of the phrases, and the way the story flows.

Even when reading a book, we can get caught up in the story and zoom through the pages without really registering the prose. Impossible to do when you’re listening. You have to focus on what you’re hearing.

“You’ve trained yourself over the years to skip the ‘boring bits,’” says bestselling author Jason M. Hough, “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.”

Sounds That Make You a Better Writer

I invite you to try it. Listen to more audiobooks. Vary your choices so you are exposed to a variety of different voices. Let them worm their way through your ears and into your brain.

Don’t worry about being overly influenced. Your brain has a way of taking what it receives, churning it up, and spewing out something that’s yours. It’s what we writers do all the time, with everything else we’re exposed to in life.

Give your brain more sounds to listen to—sounds that are directly related to writing. Sounds that teach your brain about rhythm, cadence, pace, dialogue, setting descriptions, and more.

Sounds that almost like magic, can make you a better writer.

“The most important change that audiobooks have brought about in my own writing,” says author Diane Mulligan, “is a little hard to explain. The best way I can describe the subtle but profound shift is that as I write, I hear the story in my head as if someone else is narrating it. This small change gives me some distance from the story and allows me to better assess my work-in-progress as a reader. It makes me want to make my sentence structure, diction, and punctuation a clear road map to show the reader how the story should sound.

“I’m not saying I now write brilliant and perfect drafts. Like every novelist, I will spend my entire life studying the craft or storytelling. That said, in audiobooks, I’ve found a fantastic teacher.”

Do you regularly listen to audiobooks? Have you found they help improve your writing?

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Comments (12)

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  1. Bertrand Gabriel. Fraser says:

    I really enjoyed your tips. I will try them all because I would like to become an excellent writer. There are so many good books in my mind. I will let you know how it worked out. Thank you.

  2. The only time I listened to several audiobooks was that period between and right after cataract surgeries when my eyes wouldn’t work together properly. Probably because I’m not used to it, I had trouble keeping my busy brain from wandering…similar to the problem I have with meditation.

    Reading a manuscript aloud during the editing process, however, is essential to finding those awkward sentences that read so well in our minds. I consider that an indispensable final step in preparing a manuscript for submission.

    • Admin says:

      Totally agree, Pat. Reading aloud is critical. You find so many things you wouldn’t otherwise. I also read from master writers every morning before I start writing—helps get me into the groove.

  3. Chere Hagopian says:

    Wonderful idea! I have never tried this, but I can see how it would be a fun way to improve without even trying too hard! I’ll give it a shot.

  4. This is great, Colleen! Decades ago, I was in a writer’s workshop, where every week we read for critique passages of whatever we were working on. The experience was life-changing. “Hearing” your own writing or that of others really does have a profound impact on one’s work.
    Great post!

  5. The only place I can listen to audiobooks is in the car. At home, I am too distracted, start doing something else, and stop listening. So instead, I put in a nice CD like the London Horn Sound to beef up my French Horn playing instead!

  6. Okay, you talked me into it. I’ll listen to more books. 🙂