A book wearing a pair of headphones

Image by Felix Lichtenfeld

With the booming popularity of podcasts and other audio content, self-published writers can benefit from having audio versions of their books. But because voice narration is a time-consuming specialty, it can be difficult to decide whether to shell out and hire someone or work on building the skills you’ll need to do it yourself. I’ll go over what’s involved at a basic level and offer tips that you can use to improve your narration skills.

Setting Yourself Up to Record

We’ll start by going over the basics of what you’ll need to create a voice recording that doesn’t sound like crap. This is a whole profession in itself, but a few steps will make a huge difference to a casual recording.

Setting Up Your Space

First, you’ll need a decent space to record. High-quality microphones pick up lots of background noise, so a suitable space has as little background noise as possible. That means no traffic noises, no dogs barking, and no pipes running. Noisy computer fans or the fridge coming on can also be a problem. If you have a space that’s mostly quiet but has occasional pipes running or dogs barking, you can use it, but when the noise occurs you’ll need to stop narrating and wait it out.

Once you have a space that’s quiet enough, the next step is to minimize echo. Even if you can’t consciously hear your voice echoing, sound reflection will blur the recording and prevent you from getting a crisp sound. Echo is created by flat and hard surfaces such as walls, floors, and ceilings. Breaking up the flat surfaces and covering things with blankets and other soft materials will reduce the echo.

Getting the Right Equipment and Software

It’s unlikely that the built-in microphone on your computer or device will give you a good recording, so you’ll want to buy a microphone. The mic that everyone gets when they’re starting out is the Blue Snowball. A higher-end mic is not necessarily better for you at this point – it may simply pick up more noise that you’re not prepared to deal with. Some people get a pop filter to put over the mic, but that’s only necessary if you’ll be speaking close to the mic and blowing air into it.

If you are doing your own narration, you’ll have to do some audio editing – or find someone else to. I don’t know anyone who can read even a short story from top to bottom without mistakes or do-overs. If you’re tech-savvy, learning the basics isn’t hard. However, audio editing usually takes significantly longer than recording, though the time varies a lot depending on how elaborate you get with it.

The recording and editing software of choice for most people is Audacity. It’s completely free, decently easy to use, and it has lots of advanced features if you get deeper into audio editing. Besides allowing you to cut the mistakes out and put the good parts together, Audacity has a noise reduction feature that can make the final result sound better.

Lastly, your computer can matter too. If you have access to more than one computer, you may want to do test recordings on each and compare.

Doing the Recording

When you plug the microphone into your computer, make sure both ends of the cord are fully in their ports. Then check to ensure your microphone is set to the “cardioid” setting and that the front is facing you. This setting makes the microphone record from just the front, which is really helpful in reducing background noise and bringing out your voice.

Once the mic is plugged in, start Audacity. You should see your microphone listed as a recording option – remember to select it. If you don’t see your mic, close Audacity and start it again. Save your Audacity project before you begin recording.

It’s much easier to cut out noises if they aren’t on top of the narration, so be careful to avoid making little sounds while you are speaking. If you are reading off of printed pages, when you reach the end of the page, you’ll need to stop speaking before you change the page. Don’t click on your mouse or type on the keyboard. I always plug earbuds into my computer so that if it makes any sounds, the microphone won’t pick them up. Lastly, furniture is a big culprit in the little noise department. Use the least creaky chair you own while you are recording.

Reading so Listeners Aren’t Confused

If you simply read your story top to bottom, it’s most likely that your listeners will be confused and disoriented for parts of it. That’s because text uses many visual signals for clarification. These signals include spacing, such as line and paragraph breaks, as well as punctuation, like double quotes for dialogue.

When you’re reading, you’ll need to replace these visual signals with audio ones. Often, that means abruptly changing your voice from one word to the next. This is tricky and takes practice – it’s easy to let the previous narration style bleed into the new one. Marking up the document you’re reading can help you mentally prepare to change your voice.

Creating Transitions and Boundaries

The length of pauses in narration is an important signal to readers. Happily, you can always add pauses during editing if you need to, but you may have a better feel for the appropriate pause length while you are reading.

Paragraphs group similar content together and separate content that is less related. Making the pauses between paragraphs a little longer than the pauses between sentences helps prepare listeners for a change in content. It’s also helpful to pause even longer between scene or chapter breaks, but if you make the silence too long, listeners could think their audio has stopped working.

Tone changes are also important in marking transitions. We associate specific voice tones with story openings. Just imagine someone reading “Once upon a time….” to get an idea of what that sounds like. Changing your voice to reflect the start of a new scene helps listeners realize that they’ve jumped to a new time and place or started a new story arc. This is especially critical if you’ve moved to a different viewpoint character.

Transitional text also requires a tone change. If you are narrating a scene in real time, and the next paragraph starts with “over the next week,” reading this in the same tone will mask the time transition and lead to more confusion. Instead, you’ll want something closer to an opening tone.

Distinguishing Character Voices

To avoid listener confusion, all the characters engaged in dialogue must sound different from each other. In text, dialogue tags are only needed when there are more than two people in a conversation. Otherwise, line breaks clarify who is speaking. Even with three or more people, writers often label dialogue by putting the actions of the speaking character in the same paragraph.

But since listeners can’t see paragraph breaks, by default they can’t tell when the speakers have changed. Adding more dialogue tags also isn’t the answer. Not only does that get repetitive, but listeners can’t visually scan ahead to see a tag that’s after the speaking line. In many cases, they’d have to listen to the whole line before finding out who is speaking. That’s not a good experience.

While using appropriate pauses between paragraphs will help, just giving each character a distinctive sound is the best solution for this. There are many ways of distinguishing character voices; you don’t have to use accents or make your voice higher or lower every time. In fact, if you are a man, you don’t want to use your falsetto to voice women; it will sound comical and mocking.

Simply giving characters different emotions can do the trick. If one character in the scene is confident and the other is nervous, reading them that way will allow listeners to tell who is who.

Distinguishing Between Narration, Dialogue, and Thoughts

Listeners also need to be able to tell when you’re reading dialogue and when you’re reading narration. Generally, a slightly more neutral tone is used for narration and a more animated voice is used for dialogue. However, it’s easy to go too far with this and make your narration boring and your dialogue comical. If the narration is in omniscient and has some personality, you can make up a less neutral “voice of god” to distinguish it from everything else.

Distinguishing between dialogue and narration becomes especially difficult when voicing a close point of view. Close narration should have the viewpoint character’s voice, and ideally, it sounds exactly like that character speaking. But I’ve listened to more than a few amazingly narrated books where the main character would say a line to others and then privately think or narrate a few thoughts. When this happened, I could not for the life of me tell whether they were saying those things out loud. Did she really just complain about work to her boss or confess to everyone that she’s been having a tryst with a werewolf? This uncertainty is incredibly distracting.

So, at least while dialogue is happening, it may be necessary to either compromise the narration by making it slightly more neutral or change the character’s natural voice. You can also try giving narrative thoughts a more “grumbling to myself” tone, but keep it easy to understand.

Depending on the perspective of the story, thoughts are also sometimes separate from both dialogue and narration. If there’s no one else around for the character to talk to, thoughts should be voiced like dialogue. If it’s your own work and you can edit it slightly for the audio version, adding tags to thoughts can help you navigate situations where dialogue, thoughts in italics, and more neutral narration all appear in close proximity.

Voice Acting to Bring Your Work to Life

If you are narrating your story, you are doing the work of a voice actor. How you read your story can easily change how exciting your story is and how likable your characters are. While I can’t tell you how to be a world-class voice actor in a few paragraphs, let’s go over some general things to think about.

Are You an Over Actor or an Under Actor?

I’ve found that most starting narrators fall into one of these two categories. Neither is better than the other, they’re just good at different things. Do you remember when I mentioned that narration is usually read with a more neutral voice than dialogue? That really matters here.

Over actors put more more emotion into their reading. When they’re reading the regular narration, that’s great. They’re the best ones for bringing fight scenes and other exciting moments in the narration to life. However, they tend to overemote during dialogue, making it sound cartoonish and comical. Over actors need to work on taking things down a notch or two when characters are speaking. This will help them achieve a more genuine sound.

Under actors read with a more neutral voice. When left with regular narration, they add less excitement and can make things sound a little dull. But they do a great job bringing out characters during dialogue, especially if a more serious tone is needed. Under actors need to treat the narration like something worth getting emotional over. They should work on emphasizing the content with their voice and putting in a jolt of excitement during high-stakes conflicts.

How do you know which you are? Try asking other people to listen to your recordings and tell you.

Are You Making the Story Sound Silly or Sad?

Many narrators will favor some emotional tones over others. I’ve worked with narrators who make everything sound like a child’s story and ones who add a somber tone to everything. If your default tone doesn’t match your writing, that’s something to work on. However, most starting narrators also have some flexibility in choosing the tone and atmosphere they give to the narration.

Picking the mood isn’t quite as simple as looking at the content and matching it. With darker stories, a somber voice can sound overly doom-and-gloomy, telling listeners that everything is terrible and they have nothing to look forward to. This is more likely to be an issue if the tone is sad, since sounding sad for many narrators means slowing down and being indifferent to content – that’s dull. It’s also something to watch for in the beginning, because while the beginning of a story needs conflict, it also needs hope. Dark stories should build up to full intensity rather than starting there.

For stories that are slow or slice-of-life, adding more tension to your voice can help bring out the lower-stakes conflicts that are present. You can even dramatize whether the viewpoint character succeeds at finding their lost button. Just keep in mind how cartoonish you want your story to sound, because using exaggerated emotions will make your story seem more comical than serious.

If you’re the writer, you probably know what general atmosphere your story has. Is it witty and irreverent or dark and mysterious? Make sure the audio version brings out its novelty and makes good on its selling points.

If you read this and thought, “That sounds hard, I am definitely hiring someone,” then my work here is done. If you read this and got excited about bringing your story to a new medium, then good for you! Many resources are available online for learning more about voice recording and editing. I also recommend listening to audio books in your subgenre; just don’t let those professional voice actors scare you away. They were all beginners once.

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