In my first year of journalism school, one of my reporting instructors had an interesting way of reviewing my copy (and that of the other students in my year). Instead of reading it himself, he’d have us read it to him.
As a somewhat naive 19 year old, I thought that was just a quirk of a university-level instructor. But as the weeks passed, I realized what he was doing and why he was doing it.
I learned the value of reading what I’d written out loud. It’s a technique that’s helped improve my writing and it might be able to help improve yours, too.
Let’s take a quick look at the why and how of reading what you write out loud.
Why do it?
It’s all about how the words and paragraphs flow. You can get a good idea about how well those words and paragraphs flow by reading them on the page or on screen. But that doesn’t always work. Especially when you’ve been close to those words and paragraphs for a long time.
By reading them out loud, you get a feel for what a reader will be experiencing. Sentences that are too long or too short. Words that seemed right but which really don’t fit. Awkward or abrupt pauses and transitions. Constructs that look good to you on paper, but which don’t have the smoothness that your work needs.
Reading out loud exposes those sins, and others. You also get a good sense of the cadence of what you’ve written. And if you do, or plan to do, any public speaking then reading out loud gives you an idea of how to write and structure a talk.
How to do it
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Just print off your article or blog post or chapter (or load it on to your tablet) and start reading. That’s where you start.
You’ll want a hard or digital copy of what you’re reading in your hand. Something compact, but also with a font and line spacing that’s easy to read. I suggest 12 or 14 point type, 1 1/2 spaced or double spaced.
Don’t just start reading, though. The way in which you read your work is important. You don’t need to pretend you’re playing King Priam in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, declaiming in a voice that will reach the audience in the cheap seats. Instead, use your normal speaking voice. Treat what you’ve written in the same way you would a conversation. Use a natural rate of speaking, natural cadence, and natural intonation.
If you’re too shy to do that, turn down the volume a bit. It needs to be more than a whisper, though.
As you’re reading, listen carefully. Listen for how well or badly the words flow. Listen for awkward phrases, for sentences to go on too long, for words which were easy to write but difficult to say. If you start feeling breathless, for example, then a sentence is too long.
Sometimes, you don’t notice much when you’re reading aloud. If you find that happening, think about recording and then playing back what you’re reading. Use a tool like Audacity, a web app like Online Voice Recorder, or an app on your smartphone or tablet. Playing back what you’ve recorded really points out the flaws in your writing.
Once you’ve pinpointed the problems, get to work editing and rewriting. Smooth out those problems, then try reading the edited version aloud. You should find that what you wrote now flows a lot more smoothly.
Photo credit: Mykola Velychko