Writing Lessons Learned From Narrating

This week marks the second anniversary of my becoming an audiobook narrator. It’s been an interesting and fun experience. The pros say that writers can learn a lot from reading other writers, but I’ve realized a writer can learn a lot from narrating others’ books.

As writers, we all have our own love-hate relationship with revising and editing, even as we know how beneficial it is to polish our stories to a fine shine. But it can be hard to catch everything when you’re staring at a manuscript for the third, eighth, or twenty-third time. This is why writers are encouraged to put away a story for a bit between writing and editing rounds, to gain a fresher pair of eyes. This is also why it’s useful to employ such editing tricks as reading a manuscript backwards and reading it out loud. There’s so much that can be missed as eyes skim over the page in a traditional pattern.

But if the writer has edited to “good enough” and then handed the manuscript off to a narrator to record the audio version, the narrator can only read what’s on the page. The mistake can render the sentence into complete gibberish, and the narrator still has to read it as is and make it sound deliberate. I speak from experience when I tell you that if the narrator is, or has ever been, an editor, a well-crafted typo can spark a war between narrator and inner editor that drives the narrator to walk off, take a deep breath, and come back. (I also speak from experience when I say having to go back and correct a recorded sentence to include a mistake because the narrator didn’t realize she subconsciously edited the sentence isn’t fun, either.)

For writers who prefer to dwell in science fiction and fantasy worlds, especially if they write series, a writer’s bible is essential. And if there is an intent to eventually turn the book series into an audiobook series, then there needs to be a running pronunciation sheet for the narrator. As someone who has narrated almost nothing but science fiction and fantasy novels, I can tell you how much of a life saver a pronunciation guide can be. (Some of my authors will tell you I’m not afraid to ask how to pronounce names.) The writer has created this immersive world. The narrator is trying to recreate the world in sound. Nothing is more distracting than listening to a narrator (be it the narrator herself while prooflistening or editing, or the narrator of a long-running urban fantasy series) who doesn’t pronounce a name the same way twice. The argument that different people might pronounce a certain name differently doesn’t hold water when it’s the narrator point-of-view changing the pronunciation. (Also a pain to edit, but I tend to write down intended pronunciations in a notebook that sits open in my line of sight while I’m narrating. It can help.)

These really are cosmetic lessons for the writer-turned-narrator, though. Once a writer has started narrating, a number of things about her own writing really start to jump out at her. I think Mary Robinette Kowal, herself a writer and narrator, really hit the nail on the head when she noted how aware the writer becomes of things like characters within a single story or scene, dialogue, and the point of view of the character or voice telling the story.

Because the narrator is interacting more deeply with the story, searching for subtext and characterization to pull out into the narration, the writer who also narrates gets to analyze the author’s writing style and techniques that much more closely, making it a powerful learning experience. So, I’m grateful I’ve had this opportunity over the last couple of years to get to explore. Time to go see what I’ll learn next!


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