You’ve heard the sound of your own voice on a recording, right? Maybe on a phone or in an old video. Did it really sound like you? Even if you didn’t hear it through studio-quality reference speakers, I bet it didn’t sound the way it does in your head.
It’s the same with your writing. When you read it aloud, it sounds…well, different. The authorial voice doesn’t sound quite like yours and the words aren’t as familiar as they were in your head. But this is a good thing. You see, writers are told to write. You’ve got to do the work, they say. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer. Which is true. Also, if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read. A lot. And that’s true too.
But I’d like to invite you not just to read, but to read aloud. It may be the best aid to self-editing I know, yet so many writers either don’t do it or have never thought to do it. It gives you an entirely new perspective on your work. Just like that alien voice you hear on recordings, it doesn’t sound like you.
It’s almost as if someone else had written it and with that distance comes a certain objectivity. You see (or should that be hear?) things that weren’t apparent before. You get a better sense of your work as a whole.
So, with all that in mind, here are five real benefits of reading your work aloud.
It helps make your writing more readable
When you hear your own words spoken, all those typos and grammatical errors and awkward phrases suddenly jump out at you like the monster in a horror movie. When you read your writing in the usual (silent) manner, you know how it’s supposed to sound and that’s what you read. Your eye misses the errors because it fills in what should be there. You see what you expect to see.
But when you read it aloud, there’s no hiding place for those pesky little annoyances. An awkward phrase is awkward to read aloud and you can hear the awkwardness much more clearly than you can see it. Grammar errors are blatant when they’re spoken. And as for typos…well, exactly how would you pronounce “sp[elling e5rror”?
You’ll hear the true rhythm and flow of your language
Rhythm — and its best buddy, flow — are pretty difficult concepts to get to grips with, but when you read a piece aloud, the rhythm of the words becomes obvious. And that’s simply because you can hear them.
I’ve always thought of it as analogous to music. If you see a song written down in musical notation (let’s assume we can read music for this) you might know how the tune goes and have a grasp of the rhythm. But you might not notice a misplaced note here and there or a section where the rhythm goes awry. It’s not readily apparent on a music sheet. All those lines and dots start to look the same after a while. But as soon as you hear that same piece played by a band or a soloist, any weird musical phrases are immediately obvious — and a beat out of time can derail the whole performance. Try dancing to Staying Alive in 11/9 time.
It’s the same with writing. When a phrase has just one word too many, you’ll hear it and if the cadences of a passage don’t quite fit, your reading of it will be halting. It’s not dancing, but when the rhythm’s wrong, everything’s wrong.
Reading aloud helps you create more natural dialogue
Conversations are spoken, not written. So what better way of assessing the naturalism of your characters’ dialogue than speaking their lines for them? Good dialogue is difficult to get right, and we certainly don’t want to try and reproduce it precisely, with all its hesitations and repetitions and interruptions. But it needs to sound natural even if it’s contrived, and the best way I know of doing this is by reading it out loud. When you get it right, it will sound completely natural.
Reading dialogue aloud also gives you a chance to hear whether your characters have distinctive voices. If they all sound the same to your ear, it’s going to be hard for your reader to differentiate them on the page. Look out for the idiosyncrasies that real people have when they talk, and if they’re lacking, it’s time to get back to the keyboard and work on your characterization.
You’ll spot plot holes and missing information
I’ve written first drafts so full of holes you could drain spaghetti in them. It’s difficult to keep track of who did what and where, especially when you know the whole story inside out. You forget that the reader doesn’t know the story as intimately as you and you leave stuff out that’s self-evident to you, but not to someone who doesn’t possess advanced ESP abilities.
I’ve lost count of how often a main character’s eyes have changed color or a protagonist has swapped from being left-handed to right-handed…and back again. This kind of thing is a very advanced writing technique known as “not paying attention,” though it may be practiced by writers at any stage of their careers.
As soon as you start reading your work aloud, these lapses will become as obvious as a lion in a Zumba class. Once again, rather than your eye seeing what it wants to see, your ear will hear what is actually written and — as we’ll discuss in just a second — because more than one sense is being used, your attention, focus, and recall will all be tuned in to spot these issues.
Don’t just take my word for it — try it now. Or after you’ve finished this article, anyway.
Reading aloud is a multi-sensory approach
It’s well established that multi-sensory learning is more effective than a “single-sense” approach, and there are plenty of studies to prove it. We can think of reading our work aloud as just such a multi-sensory activity: we use our sight to read the words and our sense of hearing to listen to them…even if the sounds we perceive are the same as the sounds we produce.
Neuroscientists believe this way of thinking is more effective because it simulates the way our brains operate naturally. We evolved to use all of our senses in experiencing and understanding the world, so it makes sense that our efficiency benefits from using more than one of them on any given task. After all, if our cave-dwelling ancestors had used only one sense (vision, say) to learn about the world, they would have been in a lot of trouble if a sabre-toothed tiger approached them in the dark…or from behind.
It’s no wonder that when we engage sight (in reading our words) and sound (in speaking them) we get a fuller and more detailed picture of what we’ve written. And it’s also why those typos and awkward phrases and sieve-like plots suddenly become so obvious. It’s how we’re wired.
Don’t be put off if you feel awkward at first
When you first try this, you might feel a bit silly. I did, and I’m a natural show-off, so don’t be perturbed if it seems a bit awkward. Sitting in a room reading out loud to yourself is a bit weird, right?
But you don’t have to do it on your own. Read it to your significant other, or a close friend, or a random stranger you’ve abducted from the street and handcuffed to the radiator in your basement. If you still feel uncomfortable reading aloud, have them read it to you. It doesn’t matter who does the reading, as long as you do the listening (and the reading along from the page or screen at the same time). Though you probably shouldn’t abduct random strangers from the street. Buy them dinner first.
If you’re still not comfortable, you can even have your computer read to you, which might smack of an imminent AI takeover, but it works pretty well. Microsoft Word has such a feature built in, but there are plenty of freestanding text-to-speech apps out there in the wild that do the job just as well or better. However, if you ask your laptop to read your draft and it says, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” maybe you should close the lid. And remove the battery. And don’t go out in the pod.
However you do it, reading your work aloud is probably the most effective aid to self-editing there is. I do it for everything I write — and I write a lot, so that’s a lot of reading. Give it a try and let me know how you get on. Once you overcome any initial self-consciousness, I’m pretty sure you’ll find it helps.
After all, whatever we write, it’s meant to be read. And reading aloud is still reading.