A Key Tip for Better Writing: Read Your Work Aloud
Have you ever heard your own voice on a recording and been horrified by what you sound like? Our voices sound different to our own ears than to others’ because when we speak, our own bony skulls get in the way and change the way our inner ears interpret the sound waves. (Or, umm, something like that.)
The truth is that the voice you hear on a recording is the way you really sound to the rest of the world. When you’re speaking aloud, you’re literally the only one who hears your voice the way you hear it.
Writing is a bit like that, too. When we read our own writing silently to ourselves, it sounds different in our heads than it does to someone else. And that’s a scary thing to realize, because the most important job of any non-fiction writer is to clearly convey an idea in precisely the manner intended.
So here’s a little trade secret that most professional writers know, but many amateurs don’t: Reading your own copy aloud to yourself (or to someone else whose judgment you trust) is by far the best way to discover how your writing actually sounds to other people - which is another way of saying, how good your writing is.
This is why so many writing centers, tutoring services, and workshops make reading aloud a pillar of their philosophy - as soon as the writer sits down, the tutor asks, “Do you mind if we read your work out loud?” because he or she knows reading aloud is the best way to identify issues with the writing.
In fact, reading aloud is the single most effective method I know of improving your own work. I’ve been a professional writer for 23 years, and every single piece I have ever read aloud to myself has been better for it. Likewise, I've regretted it every time I’ve skipped it. Put simply, it’s the one weird trick of writing (except that it’s real).
Here’s what’s going on
But why, you ask? Don’t you “hear” your words in your own head by reading them in silence the same as when you read them aloud? Nope.
“Multiple channels of perception give us a much richer and stronger experience of language,” explains Peter Elbow, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and the author of many books on writing. “When we revise, we come at our words from the outside, but reading aloud takes that outside perspective and puts it inside us.”
Psychologist Tom Stafford, of the University of Sheffield, says that it’s so hard to catch your own typos and other sentence-level problems because the writing process is very high level. Your mind focuses on crafting meaning out of complex ideas as you write, and when you go back to proofread later, your brain sees the meaning you’re trying to convey - a tendency that sometimes blocks you from seeing typos and other issues. Your mind concentrates on the more involved task of making meaning through writing, which can make you more likely to miss errors in your own work.
And this isn’t just Stafford’s idea - a study published in the Journal of Research in Reading backs him up. The study asked participants to find word errors in various passages that were unfamiliar, previously read, copied, memorized, or paraphrased. The researchers found that the more familiar people were with the text, the less likely they were to find errors.
Making yourself read your work aloud forces your mind to slow down along with your mouth (since you speak more slowly than you can read silently) and increases the chance that you will catch hidden problems, such as:
- Incomplete points - When you get on a roll as a writer, it’s easy to forget important points that you should have made. But when you read the piece aloud to yourself, missing components can become a lot more obvious.
- Flaws in your logic - Actually hearing yourself make your case out loud will help surface your own thin reasoning or logical flaws. When you get in the habit of reading aloud to yourself, you’ll soon start to develop a little voice in your head that challenges your every assumption and pushes back on your every conclusion. And while the critic in your head isn’t always right, engaging with it will force you to tidy up your argument, to support a theme with deeper research, or to move away from a point that you can’t really support.
- Misguided emphasis and inflection - You might think you’re accentuating a point with your choice of a word or turn of a phrase, but when you read the piece aloud to yourself, you realize that your little rhetorical flourish fell flat.
- Poor word choice - Words mean things, but one reason we have lots of words with similar meanings is because words also convey nuance. If your neighbor builds his fence on your side of the yard, you can tell him that he’s mistaken about the property line, that he’s wrong, or that he screwed up. If you were that neighbor, which would you rather be told? Hearing a word out loud helps to convey its nuance in a way that seeing it on a screen might not.
- Offbeat rhythm and pacing - In a well-written piece of content, words work together like instruments in a symphony orchestra - each does its own little job, but together they form a whole that is larger than the sum of the parts. Reading your copy aloud to yourself helps you hear how well your orchestra is performing as a group. A short choppy sentence, or several in sequence, can serve to underscore an important point, for example, but too many in a row and you’ll sound robotic. Compound, complex sentences are sometimes necessary, but like exclamation points and f-bombs, are best used very sparingly.
Just as your recorded voice sounds different to you than your live voice does, your words sound different when they come at you through the air than when they merely look up at you from the page.
And just as your “real” voice is the one others hear, your writing is only as good as others think it is.
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