Reading Aloud 9: Things that go wrong

Maggie asked:

What do you do when you make a mistake, or cough, or have to clear your throat, or take a drink of water?

I know that a person can take a break when recording a reading, and one can take a drink then. I also recall readers for the talking books for the blind making mistakes and just saying something like, ‘Excuse me,’ and moving on. But would you re-record the mistake?

We’ve been talking about two different types of reading aloud here, for a recording and for a live audience. The beautiful thing about recording is that you can always re-record the mistake. It’s better to give a clean reading, of course, but you do have the option of fixing it.

The beautiful thing about a live reading is that the mistake isn’t recorded and likely something that your audience will forget. Also things like, coughing and taking a drink of water, aren’t mistakes at a live reading. They are just part of it being live.

In both cases though, there are things that can go wrong that you can avoid or minimize.

Stumbling over a word.

What to do.
In the studio, pause. Go back to the beginning of the line and start again.
In a live reading, it doesn’t matter. Just continue on as if you meant to say it that way. Chances are your audience didn’t hear it, or will have no memory of it by the time you reach the end of a reading.

Possible causes
Chances are that your mouth has gotten dry, particularly if you stumble more than once in a paragraph. Pause. Take a drink of water and start again. In a recording, it’s easy to edit that pause out. In a live reading, your audience will understand.

It’s also possible that you aren’t thinking about what you were saying. Seriously. You might be thinking about the words, but not what you are saying, as in, not the whole sentence and the idea it conveys. Or you might be thinking, “Dang, I sound good,” or “Do they hate me?” or “Who’s that hottie in the second row?”

It might also be the first time you’ve read it outloud. While there are occasions where one needs to read something cold, it’s always better to get the mistakes out at home.

When speaking in a normal context, you might struggle to find the next word, but you rarely stumble on a word. Let me use an analogy from my artschool days. A group of us were bemoaning that we could draw a person but not a straight line. My teacher said, “That’s because you are looking at the line, not at where you are going.” It turns out that if you put a pencil down at the starting point, and look at where you need the line to end, your hand will naturally go there. But when you stare at the line itself, you lose all sense of context and meander. When speaking, you need to always be thinking about where you are going or you will get lost in the minutae of the words. Does that make sense?

I’ll demonstrate.
Here is the original raw recording of an excerpt from Danger Planet by Brett Stirling, in which I stumble a lot. This is a cold reading, so you’ll hear me stumble because of unfamiliar words (in particular Venusopolis) then you’ll hear me stumble because I’m thinking about “Hey, I said it right that time!” You’ll also hear dry mouth and decisions to change character voices or the intent of a line-reading. Because I know that I’m recording, I’m stopping after bobbles that I would let slide in a live reading. Normally, I would also have read the text beforehand and figured out how to say Venusopolis.

Here is that excerpt in which I’ve cleaned out most of the mistakes.

Inverting Words

What to do
Everyone does this from time to time. If I am recording someone else’s words, I’ll stop and rerecord the line. If it’s my own, I make a note and change it in the text later. Chances are it will be easier for my readers as well. Live? Doesn’t matter, just keep going. If you look back at it you will stumble on another word.


What to do
This is a live audience thing and differs from person to person. Your hands or knees might shake. Your voice might crack. You might get sweaty. None of these matter. The only things that will affect the reading are the things that will distract the audience by making them worry about you.

You can’t stop your hands from shaking, but you can avoid holding single sheets of paper. The paper will amplify your shaking and take it from being something that is annoying you into something that the audience can see. I like reading from books or binders so that I have something with more mass to hold.

Does your voice crack? Slow down, take deeper breaths and drink more water. When you’re nervous, there’s a tendency to rush so you can get it over faster. Remember, none of these people have heard the story before. They want to be there. Slow down.

Possible causes
You know, I don’t know why a reading provokes the fight/flight response in people, but I do know that nerves are basically an excess of adrenalin. For some reason, your body thinks that it either has to escape the tiger or kill something. But you don’t, you just have to read out loud. Before the reading, walk around, and try to spill some of your excess energy. Do deep breathing, so that you’re getting the extra oxygen that tension is making your body need. For some people, distractions work well, for others, focusing on the reading by practising helps. Mileage varies. Mostly, slow down, drink plenty of water and remember to breathe.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Aloud 9: Things that go wrong”

  1. Good hints and tips! Thanks for posting pre and post editing sound bytes. It made me feel better about my several hours of work, with 40 minutes of recorded audio, just to create a 14 minute end result.

    I really have to work on glancing ahead so I know when to take a breath. I tend to run across passages where I run out of breath just before the end. Of course I was reading Lovecraft. 😛

  2. I had forgotten all the hours you spent practicing for the forensics team in high school. This reminds me of that.

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