Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing is complicated, and sadly there aren’t many quick-and-easy tricks to improving your work. Happily, though, there are some, and in this article I’ll be sharing how one easy trick can streamline your work in a matter of minutes.
Reading aloud is something authors often don’t bother to do. After all, the readers probably aren’t going to. But those who don’t make the effort to read their writing aloud are missing an easy way to find and fix problems.
Rhythm and pace
Rhythm and pace are vital to any piece of writing, but our appreciation of them is so much stronger when we read our work aloud.
Read a passage aloud and you’ll get an immediate sense of how it ‘should’ feel; the way the words fit together and work as a whole. The same way that you can hear a missed beat or wrong chord in music, you understand when your phrasing is awkward or unwieldy.
The effect is even more pronounced because you’re producing the rhythm as you read. Reading aloud instantly presents you with words, phrases, or even sentences that ‘don’t work’. They’ll feel awkward to perform, be difficult to read, and what’s more you’ll often find that your increased appreciation for rhythm helps a far better phrase to pop into your head.
Another side-effect of reading out loud is that it highlights unnecessary word choices.
As easy as speaking is, it still takes time and attention. Read your work aloud and you’ll find that you start appreciating brevity in a way you don’t when you’re reading in your head. Overlong or wordy sentences will be noticeable, and again you’ll be in a headspace where more concise alternatives occur to you more easily.
If you find yourself skipping sections, or getting irritated that you have to read something out, then it’s a good sign that you should lose or change what you’ve skipped.
In this way, it’s easy to take advantage of your aural sense to improve written work, but if you want to take things to the next level it’s time to add social sense.
The advantages of reading aloud to an audience
Reading to another person is the next level up from simply reading your work aloud. First of all, it heightens your responses to everything that reading aloud helps you spot. If the rhythm or pace is off, or a section is lengthy, then you’ll be aware of it far in advance and in an even better place to make changes.
This is really a way of using our natural social instincts to our advantage. Quite simply, we want to do well in front of others. Combined with the acute feedback of our aural sense, this means we’re in a situation where we fully appreciate the structure of the words we’re using and have an increased desire to use them in a pleasing way.
Things that don’t work will leap out at you, as your brain registers the problem and then prioritizes it because of the social pressure. You’ll also receive a boost to your ability to fix that problem before it comes out of your mouth. We’re problem-solving animals; our ability to find solutions when presented with a pressing ‘problem’ isn’t logical, it’s chemical.
The great thing is that this doesn’t even have to be someone you’d be genuinely embarrassed to fail in front of. Our appreciation of social behavior is so deeply ingrained that any audience is enough to trigger the slight increase in problem-solving and inventiveness that can help us reword tricky passages.
And the advantages don’t stop there.
There are some passages that just don’t work. Rhythmically they can be fine, they can avoid being cut by containing vital information, but there’s still something wrong.
Again, our unwillingness to look ‘foolish’ in front of an audience can come to the rescue. Maybe it’s stilted dialogue, a poor explanation, a sentence that’s really just repetition, or something that sounds stupid to an outside observer, but you’re far more likely to pick up on it if there’s a person sitting in front of you when you read it.
In exactly the same way as we can like the look of an outfit until we wear it outside the house, sometimes you need a real person’s presence to tap into the empathy you need. We all try to be both writer and reader, appreciating our work from both sides, but having someone else present allows you to be far more specific in the way you think about your audience.
Whether the generic ‘reader’ will understand or not is a far more abstract concept than the opinion of a single, known person. Read out loud to an audience and there will be passages which you are frankly embarrassed by. The feeling is physical, prickly, and all you want is to move on to the next ‘good’ section. Suddenly, without having seen a problem before, you’re so acutely aware of which parts have problems that you’re rushing through or rewording them.
The contrast in awareness is staggering, and you can go from thinking a section is fine to wanting to reword it the first chance you get.
It’s difficult to believe the effect can be so pronounced, but authors who try reading aloud will often stand up to do so and then request two minutes to fix all the errors that have just jumped out at them.
Go try reading aloud!
It’s not often that I can recommend something free that will benefit every single writer, but reading aloud is one of those things.
This isn’t a superpower, and it won’t immediately fix every problem passage, but it is a unique way of approaching your own work that offers immediate solutions to a surprising number of problems.
For more simple but effective ways to improve your writing, check out Why trusting your intuition will make you a better writer and 4 creative writing exercises that will improve your craft.Why Reading Aloud Will Dramatically Improve Your WritingClick To Tweet