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Audiobooks: 5 Tips For Better Narration And Performance

    Categories: Publishing Options

Our world is fast becoming audio-first. With experience in radio, Jules Horne is perfectly positioned to share suggestions for focusing on how your book will sound once it's narrated.

Are you interested in publishing your books in audio form?

With audiobooks now one of the fastest-growing markets, many writers are looking at publishing their books on audio platforms such as Audible.

But some writers are going a step further, and writing with audio performance first in mind. In other words, writing first of all to engage the ear, rather than the eye.

In many ways, this makes perfect sense. Spoken storytelling is far older than the world of reading books. And if you can write a novel that engages readers when read aloud, chances are it’s a great read, too!

So if you want to go this route, what’s different about writing for performance? Do you need to change your writing style at all?

I write fiction, but I also write audio-first, thanks to a background in broadcasting and radio drama. I’ve also written stage plays and performance poetry where spoken word techniques come first – and writers in these other worlds do think a bit differently!

So I’ve compiled some tips from audio-first writing, so you can tweak your script and get the best results for your audiobook.

1. Audio writing needs to be super-clear

Audiobook ‘readers’ are often doing something else at the same time as listening to your book, such as driving, walking, or doing the dishes. They may have a split focus.

And even if listening with full concentration, they usually just get one chance to understand your words as they fly past.

This is very different from reading a book, where people can reread, scan, jump about and even flick to the end. So you really can’t be clear enough!

I’ve seen broadcast studio managers use tiny, cheap speakers to test their recording. If it’s good enough to come through lo-fi speakers with clarity, it’s ready to face the different scenarios it’ll encounter with listeners out in the field.

What to do:
If you’re writing non-fiction, include plenty of signpost words (“connectives”) to highlight change of flow.

Words and phrases such as finally, therefore, and on the other hand help to pull the reader through more easily, by drawing attention to contrast, emphasis, escalation and other changes in the underlying shape.

If you’re writing fiction, informal signal words such as then, while, so, but, and although are all the more important.

Repetition of key orientation words such as the character name are helpful, too.

2. Listeners need attunement time

It takes a few seconds for listeners to tune into new voices and changes of scene or emphasis. This might be because there’s suddenly an unfamiliar voice, or because they’ve drifted and a fresh topic has perked up their attention.

That’s why you hear radio presenters using a lot of phrases like ‘in other news', ‘meanwhile in Scotland', and ‘staying with domestic news…'

Opening phrases and words are important, but those very first words of fresh attack sometimes get lost, because the listener is still getting attuned.

What to do:
Try beginning new sections with the main orientation words a few words in. This is particularly helpful in fiction, where you can’t rely on section headers.

For example, ‘It was a dark and stormy night as Mike arrived at the mansion.' Mike (protagonist) and the mansion (setting) are more important than the weather, in terms of orienting the reader securely with your story. The detail can come later.

Or, for example, if we need to know that Mike has a knife, put it near the top for orientation, but not in the first few seconds, to allow for attunement.

Don’t use this rhythm too often! You need to ring the changes or it’ll sound repetitive. Just be extra careful to plant clear opening signposts in audio.

3. Performing nouns and landing

Audio-first writing has a lot in common with oral storytelling and other spoken forms such as performance poetry. Performance writing has its own structures and tropes, including the use of repetition and rhythm.

All writers use these to a degree, of course – the effects are just far more pronounced with the spoken word. However, not all words are equal.

An experienced stage director I’ve worked with says the secret of performing text for clarity is to “land the nouns”. As long as the nouns are clear, the audience will get the general gist, even if they don’t get the detail.

What do to:
Take a paragraph or two of your writing and highlight the nouns. Now read aloud, speaking the nouns with crisp emphasis.

Does this tell the story clearly? Is anything muddy?

Note that ends of sentences and paragraphs are powerful positions to “land” on. Do your paragraphs have a clear, resonant ending for the narrator to land on, or do they run out of steam?

Sometimes, clipping off a clause at the end to expose a more important word can make all the difference – like pruning a plant! Again, ring the changes so that your rhythms don’t get repetitive.

4. Breathing and ‘which’ clauses

Writing for audio typically has shorter sentences than writing for the eye. That’s not surprising, as it’s led by our limited lung capacities and the natural rhythm of breathing.

If you have an expansive and wordy writing voice, it can come as a surprise when narrators struggle to read your writing.

When I first started writing stage plays, I realised how breathless my writing was when actors with well-trained lungs ran out of steam at the ends of lines. My writing soon sharpened up.

What to do:
Read your writing aloud. I do this at every stage of writing – while drafting and editing, as well as when preparing a script for a narrator.

This soon reveals sentences that are too long and meandering to read aloud well. Look out in particular for “which” clauses that qualify nouns. “Which” clauses can get very unwieldy, and sentences with long qualifiers like this often read better when they’re cut in two.

5. Audiobooks are performance scripts

You may not have conceived your book as a script for performance, but once it’s in the hands of a narrator, that’s what it essentially becomes.

For some writers, this is a mindset shift, but it can be very helpful. It tightens your writing, makes editing decisions easier, and puts audience connection right at the top of your considerations.

What’s more, it gives you license to go to town on character voices, rhythm, pace, dialect, and other sound delights – elements you probably use anyway, but which truly come into their own with the spoken word.

What to do:
Conceive your next audiobook for performance from the start. Read it aloud while writing, to feel the rhythm and pace, and how the sentences rise and fall.

Think about the innate music of the language and whether it’s “actable”, giving good opportunities to the narrator. Check that it has plenty of variety in pace, mood, and voice for fiction.

With non-fiction, focus on great clarity and economy, and check that the viewpoint creates the right kind of audience connection for your genre and topic – authoritative, business-like, friendly? Spoken word makes more use of second person “you”, which may be relevant for your book.

BONUS TIP: What about Whispersync compatibility?

Whispersync is an Audible feature that synchronizes audiobooks with the Kindle ebook version. So when your audience switch platforms, it’s seamless and they don’t lose their place in the book.

For this to work, the audio book and Kindle versions need to be pretty well identical. Not all audiobooks are compatible with Whispersync, but with increasing convergence between book reading and listening, it’s likely publishers heavily into Amazon will want to make their new books Whispersync compatible, to help with cross-promotion.

What to do:
If you want your next book to be Whispersync-compatible, consider writing it with audio-first in mind, and ensure it works well for performance. The print and ebook can more easily be created from the audio script than the other way around.

With fiction, this should be relatively straightforward.

With non-fiction, it’ll depend on your genre and content. Images, graphs and tables are tricky, and lots of sub-headings and layout hierarchies don’t work well in audio format. Audio recordings are more time-consuming and costly to update, too.

If your book is image, table or link-heavy, you may decide not to bother with Whispersync, or you could provide a reader download for visuals, or information with a short shelf-life – a great way to connect to readers, too!

When you're writing, do you consider how your books will sound when narrated? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Jules Horne is an award-winning fiction writer and playwright. She teaches for the Open University and lives in the Borderlands – the part of Britain that inspired Game of Thrones.

For a manual of performance-ready tricks and techniques needed for audio-first writing, see Writing for Audiobook: Audio-first for Flow and Impact by Jules Horne, Book 3 in the Method Writing series.

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View Comments (9)

  • Mind = blown. Is it just me, or does some of this advice go right against the usual "writerly advice" I see everywhere?

  • Hi Bjørn! That's really interesting to me, as audio is so much part of my writing style that I just think of it as normal! I'd love to know what part you find mind-blowing.

    I was interested to see this Philip Pullman article where he talks about the role of rhythm in shaping his sentences https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-41670890
    It echoes how I feel about it - really exciting to hear this, given how audiobooks are taking off.

    Am wondering what it means for writers in oral storytelling and spoken word!

    • This, for instance: "If you’re writing fiction, informal signal words such as then, while, so, but, and although are all the more important." I've had two editors go through my novel and ask me to remove those words :)

      This bit, however: "Audiobook ‘readers’ are often doing something else at the same time as listening to your book, such as driving, walking, or doing the dishes. They may have a split focus." explains why the second editor kept adding phrases such as "Ragnar, Gunnar's dog" when I was doing "show, don't tell" while introducing – well, the dog for instance, but also other characters sometimes. Never thought that in the audiobook it might be helpful!

      Now I am tempted to rewrite the book again VERY QUICKLY (it's out on the 28th) ;)

  • I've had this dilemma, too. Interesting that you started out with those 'so' words and then they were deleted.

    My first books were written print first. When I started to record my first audiobook, I naturally added in those words (discourse markers). Radio flow doesn't work well without them. Then - agghh! - I read about Whispersync and how the two texts need to be IDENTICAL.

    To me, this is a game-changer. If I write the book as audio-first, then the print book can come from the audio script. I won't need to edit specially.

    So I've written the new book (the audio one) audio-first. With the others, I'm going to go back and give them an audio-first edit before recording.

    NB writers don't HAVE to do this. But it's needed if you want to be Whispersync compatible. So I suspect it'll start to influence how people write.

    And yes, those extra 'touches' to keep the mental picture alive - I've heard them described as like 'fireflies' that fade. So new sparks needed every now and again!

    I'm sure it'll work as is :) I think we're in early days of this change, and people will adapt.

    I always read aloud when writing now :)

  • Wow! This is so timely. I'm in the process of preparing my book for publishing and plan to offer it on audio. I need so much help as I've never done it before. This information is extremely helpful for me.
    Thank you Joanne and Jules!

  • This is all new to me. i'm excited to get my first three books (series) on audio. Just didn't know how to start.

  • I've been looking at narrating my books for audio publication. Thanks Jules for all the info - it is really timely.

  • Many thanks for this great information. I have five of my books available in audio format, and will take note of the advice given when I write my next book.

  • See below a corrected version of my comment. Thanks.
    If I have a non-fiction Kindle book, do I have to read it a word to the word to be eligible to Whispersync or not?
    For an example in one of my books from Healing books' series:
    • eBook version. “Read on to find out cooking secrets, tips and healing recipes.”
    • Audiobook. “Listen on to find out cooking secrets, tips and healing recipes.”
    Do I have to change this sentence to be the same for both versions? What do you think about the following versions?
    “Continue your discoveries of cooking secrets, tips and healing recipes at the following chapters.”
    “Carry on to find out cooking secrets, tips and healing recipes at following chapters.”
    I listened audio book produced by a big publishing house and I found several
    “Read on” in the first chapter. It sounds strange though…
    Any suggestion? Thank you in advance.