Cave paintings notwithstanding, storytelling began as a verbal medium. The storyteller spoke and the “reader” listened. As contemporary writers, we can still benefit tremendously by listening to the words we’ve written. In fact, reading our work aloud is an essential step in the writing process.
The trick to revising a piece of writing is to experience it in a fresh way, as your prospective reader would. Reading your work aloud brings the words into your consciousness via a different sensory channel. It plays a kind of trick on your brain. When we scan our writing off a screen, our tendency is to read over typos, fill in missing words, and make sense of awkward or unclear constructions. We know what we meant, after all. But when the words come in through our ears, we create a new space between ourselves and the work we’ve created. Suddenly we are as much audience as writer.
As a writer, editor, and teacher of writing I’ve seen the power of this approach, and now I never consider a piece completed until I’ve read it aloud.
So here’s what I suggest:
- Print out your work. If the goal is to get a fresh perspective, simply getting the work off your screen and onto the page is the initial step.
- As you prepare to read it aloud, and even while you’re reading, stand up and walk around. Shifting from your usual hunched-over posture at your computer to moving around opens new channels of perception and allows your body to become the instrument for your spoken words.
What potential problems can we more easily recognize when we listen to our writing?
- Language rhythm. We’re not all poets, yet the cadence of language is apparent in every piece of writing. Even straight exposition has its rhythms, which can bring pleasure—or boredom—to a reader. When you read aloud, you quickly become aware of polysyllabic words that trip your tongue and bloat your prose without enhancing its meaning. You’ll also hear whether lack of variation in syntax or sentence length is having a monotonous effect.
- Wordiness. When you read aloud and find yourself rushing over words to get to the heart of a sentence, you’ll realize which words are essential and which cry out for deletion.
- Clichés. Our brains are filled to the brim with clichés, so it’s no wonder that they spill out of us every time we try to express ourselves. Somehow clichés call attention to themselves when you have to mouth them. Reading aloud lets us know where we need to reach for more original language.
- Lack of clarity. When you’re reading aloud and a sentence is convoluted, meandering, or murky, you’ll find yourself stopping to ask, What! What exactly am I trying to say here?
- Awkward transitions. If there’s a gap, sudden jag, or jerk in your prose, you’ll hear it when you read aloud. Often the necessary bridge will also come to you to fill in what’s missing.
While you may feel self-conscious the first time you stand up and read your piece aloud, once you’ve recognized the benefits of this approach, you won’t consider your writing finished until you’ve actually heard it.