5 tips for writing audiobooks

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Audiobooks have been described as a “rising star” of the publishing industry. They’re seeing vast growth year-on-year, as people use mobiles and eBook readers to access them.

There are many ways to create an audiobook. Text-to-speech technology converts eBooks to audiobooks on the fly, often with high quality, human-like speech. Or you can record yourself reading your own work. You can also hire voice artists in a wide range of accents, from the amateur to the professional, on sites such as  Amazon’s ACX or Voices, or find voice talent on Upwork. 

Audiobooks are a different experience

However you do it, there are some important points to bear in mind. The experience of listening to an audiobook is very different from the experience of visually reading a book. We often discover this in writing groups, where some passages and phrases are confusing when read aloud, or have the wrong pace.

Generally, a written eBook is more “forgiving”, because as a reader, your eyes can skip passages or go back. You can set your own pace. With an audiobook, there’s one single stream of information, and any glitches are much more jarring.

These are some tips to make your writing more audiobook-ready:

1. Add more dialogue tags

The single most confusing thing when listening to text being read out loud is a lack of dialogue tags. You could have a narrator put on different voices, but it can still get mixed up. Simply attaching more: “he said” or “Mary asked” dialogue tags to your speech sections will fix this. You might fear it’s repetitive, but it won’t be. The eye skips over these tags, and the ear appreciates them.

2. Ensure lively pacing

Lengthy, descriptive passages can be terminally dull when listened to, at least in fiction. Most readers (or ‘listeners’) are after a story, not endless poetic prose. What the eye can skim over in a couple of seconds may turn into minutes of minutiae for the ear to endure. Consider writing more concisely. Think in a more film-like style, cutting between scenes and keeping the pace upbeat. People’s attention spans are getting shorter generally, and this will benefit your book in its print form as well.

3. Expand conversations

Audiobooks are several degrees more dramatic – even melodramatic! – when read aloud. Research has even found auditory stories arouse a great response than video. Dialogue becomes much more compelling, and it may be worth expanding characters’ conversations if you tend to be concise with speech.  After all, an audiobook is a voice performance, in some ways more akin to a radio play than a book. You may find that writing in first person, which is incredibly popular for younger readers, converts better to spoken material.

4. Use vocal flourishes

Literary devices such as alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia have a huge impact in speech. It’s why you find them more often in children’s books, since these are often read aloud. I once read a passage from a novel and had people comment favourably on a series of three alliterative phrases – I hadn’t even noticed that they formed a pattern as I wrote them. It was a lucky accident. Orators have been aware of the rhetorical power of the tricolon since ancient times.

5. Take care with names

On the flip side, while audible patterns can be great, take care not to have overly similar sounding names. The names “Maurice” and “Doris” look fine to the eye, but to the ear they rhyme in a comedic fashion. “Mr Green” and “Mr Bream” or “Mrs Bennett” and “Mrs Kenneth” will blur to the ear. Roald Dahl is a great example of a writer who uses funny, distinct and unusual names and words to great effect, such as “snozzcumber” or “Augustus Gloop”.

If you haven’t tried listening to audiobooks before, try downloading a free one and having a go. Or find your favourite classic novel on Gutenberg, and use speech-to-text to see how it sounds aloud. The technology is built into most computers these days – on a Mac you can access it in many apps by going to Edit > Speech > Start Speaking.  For mobile devices I recommend Voice Dream Reader, which allows you to download ultra high quality voices in many different accents.