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C.C. Hogan

Audiobook Recording Tips - Reading your book

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Part of the series of tips on recording your audiobook, this article focuses on questions about reading your book out loud. This covers presentation styles, when to breath, how to sit and other useful bits and pieces.

Should I mark up my script?

If possible, yes. It is not always immediately obvious where to breathe in a sentence, of which word to emphasise, even when you were the writer! Put a slash where you want to breathe and underline words to emphasise. Sometimes, I even just underline the syllable that needs emphasising. It all helps!

See also Preparing Your Manuscript.

How many pages or chapters do you recommend reading at each sitting?

It depends on the length of the chapters, of course. Probably better to break this up into time. I record about twenty minutes of recorded audio, then stop and edit. This means I can keep track and don't wear my voice out. Recording that length can take anything up to an hour or more, but I have a lot of characters with accents, so I stop and start a lot!

Should you add an intro or read the blurb after the title?

For anything like this, follow the guidance on the audiobook sites like ACX for Audible. It is vital that you follow their rules about chapter lengths, content and so on.

What is comparative emphasis?

This is where you emphasise a word in a clause to make a direct comparison with another clause. Emphasising the wrong word can change the sense and confuse the listener. This is probably the most important kind of emphasis to get right, therefor. 

Right: She wanted a red car, but he only had a BLUE car.

Wrong: She wanted a red car, but he only had a blue CAR.

A comparative is also used to show one person did something rather than another:

It was JANE's turn.

Do not use comparative emphasis where there is nothing to compare to.

Example: It was one of those days when the SKY was blue. (Why? What is normally blue?)

Should I leave long or short pauses?

Space between lines adds clarity and keeps the overall pace down, even when some lines are read quickly. If in doubt, leave long pauses and tighten in the edit.

I have been told I should read at a constant, even pace.

I have seen this advice quite often, and it is wrong. The best voiceover readings have a varied pace, not just line to line, but within each line. The rule is that you slow down on important information, but speed up on less important information. This is quite normal in speech and makes a reading much more pleasant and natural to listen to.

By the way, do not automatically speed up on actions sequences just because they are exciting. They will end up sounding like a horse racing commentary which will help no one. Unless of course, it IS a horse racing commentary!

What is the best way to narrate action sequences?

First of all, remember that the narrator is not part of the sequence, just the onlooker. However, you do not want your narration to make it boring. You need to learn to speak with more intensity, rather than louder and faster. Indeed, sometimes slowing down so you can add extra emphasis to key words can make it more dramatic. Think of the very deep American voice overs when they narrate film trailers. The often speak slowly and dramatically, dragging out the words and phrases to make the maximum impact and drama.

How do you handle your emotions if the book makes you laugh, chuckle or cry?

An audiobook differs from a corporate recording in that the narrator should not be passive. Obviously, laughing out loud will probably sound idiotic, but for goodness sake, be emotional. If the scene is tearful, your own emotional reaction will help bring the emotion to the listener. However, you need balance. Your characters might end up in an emotional heap on the floor, but the narrator needs to keep going.


Sometimes, a passage in a book will make you laugh idiotically - it is called corpsing. This affects all actors, great and otherwise, and entire programmes have been dedicated to airing these mistakes. 

If you do find that something is making you laugh and interrupting you, this is a good time to stop and go and do something else. You will be fine when you come back to it. 

Interestingly, it is the heartbreak bits that tend to get me. I love putting lots of emotion into those reads, but I have to take a break after.

How much should you act?

Although this is a solo read and you are reading all parts, it is still a dramatic presentation. Think about reading to children. You would never read a story in a flat voice; they would be bored rigid and demand another story teller. Just because the subject matter is older, doesn't mean less acting. 

Go for it! The chances are that even your best first attempts of over acting might not be enough!

Should I do accents?

This is a big problem area. With my Dirt recordings, I am stealing all kinds of accents. But the books are not set on Earth, so if my Scottish is not quite right, it doesn't matter - the character is not from Scotland anyway.

But if your book has characters that need accents, then you have two choices. Learn the accents properly or get someone else to do the voice. Be very careful of doing a bad accent that might alienate listeners from that part of the world.

Who am I reading to?

Any radio good presenter will tell you that they have an audience of just one person and that is who you are broadcasting to. This is a very good way to think, as it will encourage you to make the read very personal and intimate where you need. 

With multi-voice reading, it is more like a radio play and that is different, but single voice recordings should be like reading a bedtime story. If it didn't mess the sound up, you could almost stick a picture of a favourite person on the mic and talk to that!

How fast should I read?

This depends on several things. To start with, as I have said elsewhere, you should not speak at one, uniform pace, but vary your speed.

The general rule of thumb is that your overall speed should be slower than you would speak naturally. You are telling and acting out a story, but you also need to be clear. However, if on playback the result is dull, don't be tempted to just speed up. Try the same speed but put a lot more drama into the read.

A good test is to record a short excerpt and send it round to friends to see what they think.

How do I differentiate between male and female.

You don't. Unless you are reading a story for very young children, don't attempt to put on a male or female voice; it will always sound comical.

Just treat the character as you would any other character. The listener will imagine the rest.

Having said that, because my voice goes very low sometimes, I am careful not to let young women character voices go too deep. But that is my only consideration.

How can I stop myself running out of breath?

You will often find that you run out of breath more quickly when recording than you do in natural speech. This is for two reasons. Firstly, you are probably putting more into the read, and secondly, you are far more aware of when and where you breathe.

If you have a long complicated sentence to read, don't be afraid to pause and take a long, deep breath first. However, don't just snatch a breath and read, take the breath, hold if for a second, then start reading, regulating how quickly you are using your breath. 

Marking up the script with logical breath points will also help as you will know when you can pause and take a new breath.

Should I change words if I have problems?

If it is someone else's book, not without their consent. However, we are mostly talking about your own books here, so, why not? If in the process of recording, you realise there are better ways of saying things, or find problems (I did with Dirt), then correct them. But remember to update all the ebook and print versions too.

This may also improve your chances of Amazon switching on Whisper Sync as your text and recording will be a perfect match.

How much should I project my voice?

This depends on what you are doing. For books, you need a good dynamic range (louds and quiets) so that it does not feel like a lecture. Depending on style, your Narrator probably should not over project or shout, though they should get more "intense" when reading action.

Remember, you are only speaking to one person, not an audience.

If you are recording poetry, you may want to project a little more. You are probably still talking to one person, but they are standing further away rather than sitting comfortably at your feet!

How do I prepare my voice for recording?

It is important to warm your voice up before you start recording. The temptation is to not speak much before recording so you don't tire your voice out, but actually, this is counter productive. If you don't warm up, then your voice will be weak, unstable and lack warmth.

There is an old technique which David de Keyser used to do. He would sit in front of a microphone and make loud "umm-ah" vocalisations to warm up his voice. Someone once edited them altogether from countless sessions into a tape which ran an hour! (So, we were a bit bored...)

But if you don't want to do something official, just get comfortable and rehearse the first few pages of your book. That will probably do the job.

How do I mark up my manuscript?

This is far too complicated for this FAQ, so I have written a dedicated article here.

My narration is boring

This is a problem I have had myself. It is important that the narrator sounds not only different but separate from the characters, but the risk is that you end up sounding like a radio announcer.

Remember that this is a performance, not just a read, so give your narrator a personality and lots of enthusiasm, and stick to it.

How can I keep my voice tone and style consistent?

This can be quite a challenge, especially if you are recording in an acted style. And not just between chapters and sessions, but even during the recording. 

One important trick is once you establish the style, record a reference and refer to it often. This applies not just to characters but to the narrator too.

A silly trick that I use is to pick a phrase that often comes up and use that to get you into the style. I use this for the narrator. In my case, it is the words "Chapter ten - a chapter title." I have a very defined way of saying those words which I can do without thinking. Saying them drags my narrator back on track, and I will often repeat the phrase a couple of times when I am picking up after a mistake or a pause.

How do I inflect "John said"?

This sounds so easy until you try to do it, especially if you are reading the characters with lots of acting and accents going on.

The basic rule is the that it should be a downward inflexion as if there is a full stop after "said". But in doing that, you must not over emphasise the "John" or it will sound like you are making a comparison. It should run on from the actual dialogue. "He is outside now," John said. But in character, the two parts of that single will sound different. 

If you are having trouble, do the line without any accent as one read, then just do the dialogue bit on its own and edit it in. Obviously, don't do this for a whole book - this is just for practice!

You mention timing a lot, but this is not music.

When we speak, we adopt a natural rhythm that is specific to ourselves and to the situation. It is more than just how fast or slow, but the beat that is behind it.

This beat is important as it helps emphasis and adds character. A voice that speaks at a constant beat is incredibly dull and robotic. A good actor varies their rhythm and this adds a musicality that keeps our attention.

Different characters have different rhythms too, which helps differentiate between them.  When you edit, the timing of your edits needs to reflect the timing of the voice - NEVER edit with set length gaps!

This is especially important in corporate or non-fiction reads. It is tempting to make these a very even pace, but that just makes them tortuous. Listen to David Attenborough, one of the greatest non-fiction narrators. He is acting his socks off, and it makes his programmes truly wonderful. 


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