One of my key responsibilities at my firm is to coach team members to help them improve their writing. And since I've been editing for so many years, I can look at a piece of writing and quickly diagnose what the problems are and how to fix them.
But many writers struggle with how to edit their own work. They create a draft and try to improve it, but they often miss key issues like:
- Repetitive words and phrases
- Clunky construction
- Sentences that go on forever and then join with other sentences to create massive paragraphs
- A stiff style that sounds corporate or academic
What's the best way to improve your ability to identify problems so you can become a better writer?
It's simple: read your work aloud.
The smartest writers (and other smart people) endorse this method:
"Reading your own material aloud forces you to listen." - Stephen Ambrose, historian and biographer
"I read everything aloud, novels as well as picture books. I believe the eye and ear are different listeners. So as writers, we need to please both." - Jane Yolen, American author of fantasy, science fiction and children's books
"I don't find writing easy. That is because I do take great care: I rewrite a lot. If anything sounds sort of clumsy and not possible to read aloud to oneself . . . it doesn't work." - Ruth Rendell, English author of thrillers and murder mysteries
"When we launched a new company, I reviewed the ads and marketing materials and asked those presenting to read everything aloud to test the phrasing and concept. If I could grasp it quickly, then it passed with muster. We would get our message across only if it was understandable at first glance." - Richard Branson, entrepreneur and founder of The Virgin Group
"I find that reading my work aloud makes it weird enough that I can't scan or gloss over anything." - Austin Kleon, writer and artist; author of Steal Like An Artist
Reading aloud is particularly helpful in improving these 5 aspects of your writing:
- Mistakes. According to Erin Feldman, a copywriter and digital marketing strategist, "the first reason is obvious. It allows you to catch errors you've made in your writing. You'll spot missing words and misspelled words. You'll trip over sentences and realize that the sentences are a little mangled and require some attention. You'll discover you have two, distinct ideas in one paragraph, and you need to separate them."
- Bad words.I don't mean expletives; I'm referring to unfortunate word choices. If you're writing about a particular topic (like my specialty, internal communication), it's hard to avoid using the same word or term over and over again (like, say, "internal communication") until it becomes painfully repetitious. Reading aloud helps you hear the problems you may not see.
- Sentences or sections that don't add value. "Sometimes when we write, we create filler," writes Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer. "We don't think deeply about what we're saying. We include throwaway lines. Reading something out loud has an unusual way of bringing this to your attention. You suddenly don't have your heart in what you're saying. Especially for short pieces, you should care about delivering every line. If you have the desire to skip over parts, or leave something out, then you should edit it out.
- Rhythm and pace. "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," writes Robert Wood, an editor at StandOut Books. "The same way that you can hear a missed beat or wrong chord in music, you understand when your phrasing is awkward or unwieldy."
- Perspective and voice. Here's advice from Jane Friedman: "Listening to yourself--whether in the moment or recorded--more closely identifies the writing to YOU, and you start to think more carefully about whether the events, details, and intricacies of the story reflect YOUR perspective."
But wait; there's more! Reading your work aloud prepares you to discuss your work in person," writes Feldman. "Somehow - and I don't know how - the words permeate better when they're read aloud. I become comfortable with the words and the ideas they represent. I remember them and can talk about them because they have become familiar to me."
You may ask me, "Do you read your work aloud?" At this point, not that often--mostly because I "hear" my writing when I silently read it. But I sometimes read aloud when I'm having difficulty with a piece of work. And I always read my work aloud when creating an aural experience: for example, a podcast, a radio segment or a video voiceover.
So I advise that you take the advice of great writers: If you need to improve your writing, try reading it aloud.