Russell Bither-Terry, Voter Engagement Advocate for Oregon Secretary of State, reflects on working at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center to bring you tips for clear, concise writing.
By: Russell Bither-Terry – LinkedIn and Twitter
In Kent’s testimonial about the UNC Writing Center, he specifically lists reading his papers out loud as one of the key things he learned from his sessions there. Here’s a poem in honor of his favorite strategy:
If I were only allowed to give one piece of advice about writing it would be this: read it aloud.
When I tutored students our sessions almost always started with reading the paper out loud. (The main exception was if a student didn’t have anything written yet and came in to brainstorm). Here’s an illustrated video about the strategy:
If you read about writing you’ll come across the advice again and again, but most of my students had never tried it before their first tutoring appointment. Most of them found it useful after they did. So I’d say the strategy needs more publicity.
Here are a few things reading aloud does.
Typos, Typos, Typos
It’s the most efficient strategy for proofreading that I know. Often, both in school and in work, our time for finding stupid little errors is limited, so this efficiency makes it a good default tool.
One kind of error it helps me find is where I’m missing a word or have an extra word, but my mind keeps fixing it when I read it. So if I write:
“I think is a good strategy for finding typos.”
In my head I might add the word “it” after “is” even though I didn’t actually write it.
When I was first grading papers as a teaching assistant I was much better at giving comments about argument and organization than about sentences and style. (Indeed, one of the reasons I applied to work at The Writing Center was to learn more about sentence-level goodness). I found myself wanting to write “write better sentences” on students’ papers. But that wouldn’t be constructive. In fact, it would make me seem like a jerk. Similarly, “awkward” is unclear, and re-writing sentences for them (1) is a lot of work, (2) can come across as not respecting them as writers and (3) is probably not very educational.
A history professor told me she just writes “read aloud to rephrase” on papers and I went with that. I actually thought about getting it on a rubber stamp. Usually, when a writer reads an awkward sentence aloud it become immediately clear that it needs work. Often the ear can hear better alternatives. Sure, there’s plenty of terminology and theory behind why one phrasing is better than another. I think that stuff is fun, but a lot of people don’t care. In the crunch of making a piece better before a deadline the important thing is to find a phrasing you like and think will be clear to your reader.
One of the hardest, and most important, writing skills is to imagine how your writing will look to a fresh set of eyes. How will it look and sound to your audience? Are there places where you’ve assumed knowledge that there’s a good chance your reader won’t have? Transitions that seem abrupt? Too little variety in sentence patterns? Places where the rhythm is just off?
Moving your writing from this thing you’re looking at on the screen or page to something you’re listening to can help find these things. Often you’ll just hear them and have a clear idea of what you want to change. Then you can read that out loud and see if it works.
Sound of My Voice
In the interest of not being a huge hypocrite, I read the first draft of this article out loud. It took me just over seven minutes and I marked twelve edits I wanted to make.
So give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is you spend a few minutes listening to the sound of your own voice.