The ear catches what the eye misses

One of the not-so-fun parts about writing is agonizing over difficult sentences, paragraphs, passages, or transitions. You type and type, retype and retype, stare at the screen, delete, cut-and-paste – but your words still feel klunky or unclear.

Here’s one way to get past this obstacle and quickly break through to the best way to say what you want to say: Read your work aloud to yourself.

Seriously. Try it.

Take some bit of writing you’re unhappy with. Take a deep breath and read it aloud, slowly and clearly. Imagine you’re reading it on the radio, and the only way your intended audience will encounter your words is by listening to your voice.

Here’s how to make this trick really work well: Listen to yourself as you read! When it comes to awkward writing, the ear often catches what the eye misses. Tune in to your voice, shift your mental focus away from your eyes. Pay attention: Where do you stumble as you read aloud? Where do you not immediately know which words to vocally emphasize? Which sentences feel way too long, or too choppy? Which transitions feel awkward? Which subheads seem to miss the point? Does anything sound confusing?

Whenever you encounter a place in your writing that is not easy to read aloud, mark it – either with a pen on paper, or just quickly type an less-common character (such as # or %) into the electronic file. Whatever you do, don’t stop reading. Even more importantly, don’t try to fix problems on the first pass! Just continue reading aloud as much of your writing as you feel you should.

When you’re done, go back and review each marked point. Read just that sentence, phrase, or transition aloud again a few times. Does the problem become more apparent, or less so?

Talk to yourself about how to fix each problem. Don’t worry if your coworkers think you’re crazy! Just talk yourself through each difficult point as if you were explaining it to someone in a spoken conversation. Often, clearer phrasing that flows more easily will magically appear. Use a digital voice recorder if that helps. Once you’ve said something that sounds better, write it down verbatim and then refine it as warranted.

Avoid perfectionism and obsession. You don’t need to fix every little problem with your writing. Focus on the most awkward parts first, then give the whole section a quick read-through and listen to whether it sounds good enough. When it does, stop reading aloud and move on. Obsessing over writing rarely helps the end result.

6 thoughts on The ear catches what the eye misses

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  1. I’m really excited to hear of this technique. I have always thought that when I read out loud I read what I actually wrote rather than my brain assuming I wrote what I was thinking. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one that reads to herself.

  2. I tend to doubt myself when I write, problem is I try too hard to be a perfectionist. Always wondering where I should end this sentence or that sentence. However I have begun to speak aloud to my 4mos old daughter and I find myself being more aware of what it is that I’m reading and writing. My attention is there as is hers.

  3. I used to speak faster than I write. Then one day, I practiced reading out loud what I wrote and found out a lot of missing words in my sentences. That was over ten years ago.

  4. At my company, when we write instructions for our customers, we read aloud. My manager says if either the reader or listener hesitates, those words have to be changed.

  5. In the past we did 2 person proof reading for hard copy with one person reading and the senior person following.

    Not only did we pick up errors we also found ways to improve the text. Sometimes it was just that the reader hesitated. This was enough to indicate some awkwardness of phrase, a change of pace, no heading, jarring as topics changed, tense changes, personal pronouns changing and so on.

  6. it is quite amazing
    i was labouring over punctuation and other such matters when a friend sent me this link
    ominous!
    i am now looking like a ‘crazy’ person trying to act my words..thank god i am alone in my offfice
    and bless you!