Read your copy aloud
When Don Murray arrived in the newsroom for his first day on the job as writing coach for the Boston Globe, he turned to his new boss and said: “I can tell you who your three best writers are.”
Then the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work proceeded to do just that.
“How did you know?” the editor asked.
“Their lips move when they write,” Murray said.
Reading your copy aloud — hearing your words instead of just staring at them — is one of the techniques that separates master writers from the might-have-beens.
“The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader,” said poet Robert Frost.
Do your lips move when you write?
Benefits of reading aloud
Specifically, it will help you:
1. Reduce errors.
Your eyes are such good editors, they can “fix” your copy as they view it. Your ears will catch what your eyes miss.
Students taking remedial writing courses at the City University of New York, for instance, eliminated 60% of their grammatical errors by reading their copy aloud, according to Richard Andersen, author of Writing That Works.
2. Make your copy conversational.
“Effective writing has the illusion of speech without its bad habits. The reader hears a writer speaking to a reader. The writing should flow with grace, pace and clarity — not the way we speak but, better than that, the way we should speak.”
— Donald M. Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Writing to Deadline
We want our copy to sound the way we do when we speak — not like some computer spit it out. Take this sounds-the-way-you-speak passage by Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, calling attention to a great bottom line in his 2006 letter to shareholders:
“Below is the tally on our underwriting and float for each major sector of insurance. Enjoy the view, because you won’t soon see another like it.”
3. Make your copy sound better.
Reading aloud can smooth out rough passages, reduce fits and starts, and otherwise make your copy flow instead of stutter. It can help you find a voice and tone for your piece.
“Effective writing has the illusion of speech without its bad habits,” Murray writes. “The reader hears a writer speaking to a reader. The writing should flow with grace, pace and clarity — not the way we speak but, better than that, the way we should speak.”
4. Cut Through the Clutter. Do your ideas have room to breathe?
When you read your copy aloud, your tongue will trip over nine-syllable words; you’ll run out of breath before the ends of long sentences; you’ll stumble over redundancies, jargon and passive voice.
In short, you’ll find all the things you’ve been looking for — but missed — thus far in your editing process.
Five ways to write for the ear
To write the way you speak:
1. Choose a voice.
Decide upfront what the right voice is for this piece:
- Individual or institutional?
- Bureaucratic or — as Stacey Cox, manager of Internal Communications at CenterPoint Energy — calls it, “business casual”?
- “Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?” asks William Zinsser in On Writing Well.
Whatever you decide, do decide. Commit to a voice, then stick with it.
2. Run the “Hey! Did you hear?” test.
To make sure your copy’s conversational, say, “Hey! Did you hear?” Then read your copy aloud.
If the rest of your copy sounds as if it could logically follow that introduction, you’re on the right track. If it sounds like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons (“Wah Wah Wah Wah”) you might want to revise.
Or to the editor. Explain what you want to say. You may find that you’ve just said it.
4. Write your piece in the first person.
“If you aren’t allowed to use ‘I,’ at least think ‘I’ while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the ‘I’s out,” Zinsser suggests. “It will warm up your impersonal style.”
5. Leave yourself a voice mail.
Still having trouble? Try recording your observations about the topic at hand. Buy a tape recorder or leave yourself a message.
Now ear this.
“When I started reading my stories aloud for a living and I’d hear myself, I would think, ‘Good heavens, that needs to be pointed up,’ or ‘That should be out.’ Now, as I go to colleges to do readings, I have revised a lot of my early stories so that they read more succinctly. I wish I had learned early on what a good test reading aloud was.”
— Eudora Welty, American author
Find a private place and read your copy aloud. When you identify passages that need help, talk them out until you hear something that works better.
Your readers will thank you for it.
Do you read your copy aloud?
If so, how does that help you?
Sources: Chip Scanlan, “Speak Up! I can’t read you,” The Poynter Institute, Sept. 16, 2003
Richard Andersen, Writing That Works, McGraw-Hill, 1989
Warren Buffett, “2006 letter to shareholders” (PDF) Berkshire-Hathaway, 2006