Here’s today’s writing tip on how to be a better writer: Don’t write.
Now, when I say ‘don’t write’, I don’t mean you should take a break or get away from the keyboard for a day. That’s just common sense, and you should already be taking frequent breaks. When I say ‘don’t write’, I mean you should stop writing and start listening to what you’ve written.
Yes, I mean reading your work aloud.
Okay, wait just a second here. Don’t roll your eyes that way. I know you’ve seen this writing tip before. It’s all over the place, because plenty of experts (and not-so-experts) suggest reading aloud as a way to improve your work for sparkling copy.
But if you’re like most writers (and you probably are), you’ve read the ‘read aloud’ tip already. You’ve nodded, smiled and completely ignored it.
You don’t need to do that. You’re a good writer already.
Or are you?
Take me, for example. I’m a fair hand with Mr. QWERTY. We’re on good terms, he and I. I know I write well, my posts get attention, my web copy sells. I write using all the usual good-practice techniques I’m supposed to use: keep it simple, keep it clear, and write like you speak.
Well, until I actually spoke, that is. Then it all went to hell in a hand basket.
You see, I had this brilliant idea that I wanted to record some audio files. (Yes, you’ll get to hear my voice more often.) So I sat down with my gadgety gear, determined to give it a whirl. I figured I’d just talk aloud for a few minutes. You know, to practice. To get used to it. To work out the kinks.
That was just about the worst idea ever.
If you’ve ever done audio, you know what I’m talking about. You have to get over the surprise of hearing your own voice, now that it’s not echoing in your head and a full tone different from what you thought it was. Frankly, you think you sound like a dork. (Even if you don’t.)
You feel like a dork, too, because you’re sitting there talking to yourself about whatever comes to mind. Chickens. Ice skating. That you need to paint your office a better color. What you’ll eat for supper.
And while you’re debating whether you’ll have cream or tomato sauce with your pasta, you try on a few different voices to figure out which one sounds best for what you want to do. (Big dork.)
Then you pause to wonder why no one has ever told you how much of a dork you are. Sheesh. Some friends, eh?
Anyways, by this point, I realized talking to myself wasn’t working, so I grabbed a post of mine and decided to read that aloud. I wouldn’t have to fumble about, and I could practice sounding smarter than I am. Great idea. Dorkiness, begone!
When you read aloud, everything wrong with your writing suddenly leaps out at you. You hear the awkward sentences, you spot a word you should’ve replaced with a better one, and you catch phrases that just don’t sound right.
In fact, you start to wonder how you ever missed all these glaring errors. Not only are you a dork, you’re an idiot!
It’s not your fault. You never saw them – because you didn’t hear them.
The Powerful Benefits of Reading Aloud
Reading aloud is a valuable exercise to improve your writing. Your words become crystal clear, and they’ll convey a more powerful, effective message that gets you better results. Here’s why:
You’ll spot paragraphs that end abruptly. You’ll notice transitions between ideas aren’t as smooth as you thought they were. You’ll hear if your introduction sounds weak or choppy, and you’ll discover whether your wrap-up encourages conversation or just stops it cold.
That’s when you can make your writing better. You can rework it and nip all the awkwardness so that you create flow between paragraphs, clarify your ideas, expand on skimpy sections, and hone the perfect lead-in and wrap-up.
Read it aloud once more, give it a last polish, and voila! Excellence.
Reading aloud lets you craft great writing, but that’s not really why you should do it. No one actually gives a damn about the calibre of your sentence structure or whether it’s sheer art on a computer screen in Arial 12.
You should read your work aloud because it helps you provide people with a better reading experience – not because they have an easier time reading, but because they have an easier time hearing. Literally.
We Have Voices in Our Heads
No, you aren’t crazy, but you do hear voices in your head. All the time, in fact, and it’s perfectly normal.
It’s called sub-vocalization, which is a natural brain process we use while we read. As we read, we imagine the sounds of words and ‘hear’ them in our minds. That’s pretty important, because sub-vocalization helps us understand more of what we’ve read and remember it longer.
(I bet those ‘read aloud’ posts you’ve come across before never told you that, did they!)
By reading aloud, you can improve your writing to help it sound even better during the sub-vocalization process your readers are going to go through when they get their eyes on your words. That means they’ll grasp your razor-sharp message perfectly, learn from it quickly and understand it clearly.
They might even tell their friends about it. Extra reader win.
By the way, sub-vocalization is a handy little process to keep in mind when you’ve spent money to take a course or buy an info-product. Don’t just read it. Read it aloud. You’ll learn more, understand it better and remember it longer.
If it’s well written, that is.
Have You Lost Your Voice?
There’s another reason you might want to read your work aloud, and it’s one that other writers won’t tell you about: Reading aloud helps you find your writing voice.
Finding your writing voice is a common problem. Writers – especially new ones – tend to get confused about the ‘voice’ they should use.
So use your real voice to find your writing voice. Pick up something you wrote, read it aloud, and think about the way that voice sounds to you. Do you like that tone? Does the style match your personality? Should it sound more authoritative or a little friendlier?
What about consistency? Are you carrying your voice the whole way through your work? You might have subconsciously switched ‘voices’ midway. The intro sounds like you, but further down the page, something changed. In fact, the first time you read your work aloud, you might think, “Wow, that doesn’t sound like me at all.”
Even when you’d been sure the voice was a perfect fit.
It’s hard to figure out writing ‘voice’ unless we actually hear what we sound like for ourselves. So go ahead, play around and try on different voices until you find the one you like best.
I bet you’ll never lose it again.
Reading Aloud Without Saying a Word
Here’s another great tip for reading aloud: Don’t do it.
Let someone else read to you. It can be distracting to read your own work to yourself while trying to pay attention to what you hear and take notes on where you should make corrections at the same time. You’ll probably miss a bunch of improvements you should’ve made.
Print out a copy of your work and ask a friend to read aloud to you, or use text-to-speech software like Natural Readers (free!). When someone else reads to you, it makes focusing on listening a breeze. Sit back and pay attention to every word.
Once you get good at reading aloud, you can switch up the game by using speech-to-text software, like Dragon NaturallySpeaking or MacSpeech Dictate. These programs let you skip the writing phase so you can just say what you want to say – the software converts your voice to text and the words magically appear on the screen. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s a lot of fun to use.
Hit publish, and you’re all done!
What about you? Do you read your work aloud? Have you noticed a difference in the quality of your writing? What do your readers think? Oh, and just in case you’re wondering… yes, I read this post out loud.
Many people ask me about Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Is it worth it? Does it work?
Yes, and yes. It's very easy to use, I've found it highly accurate, and I've had the program in my toolbox for years. Several other prominent people swear by it too, like Jon Morrow and Mark McGuiness.
The trick is actually using it. Get accustomed to talking out loud. Create lots of drafts and rework them. Practice, and give it a chance – because the time you'll save 'writing' is well worth it.