You should be reading out loud.
If you’re feeling skeptical, take a look at this recent study by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University:
The study followed the progress of 18 second-graders over a period of five weeks last summer. The kids were divided into two groups. One group read aloud to dogs and the other half read to a person.
At the end of the five weeks the children were evaluated. Researchers did note a difference between the two groups, with an increase in the words read per minute by the children in the dog group, and a decrease among children who spent the time reading to people.
Man’s best friend is apparently more patient and much less judgmental than man himself, so it’s not surprising that the kids in the dog group became more confident, passionate readers than those who worked with people.
I would like to see part two of this experiment: Bring the dogs back, and let the kids read their own writing to them. Give it a few weeks, then sit back and watch the writing skills improve. It’s inevitable.
My students will do almost anything to get out of reading their work to anyone, including themselves. I’m rather sensitive about my own work–not to mention my abnormally-low, mannish voice–so I understand how they feel. Still, I tell them, read your work out loud. If you can’t stand to read it to a parent or friend, read it to yourself. But do more than run your eyes across the page. Read your work audibly–and listen to it.
Writing of any kind is often digested silently by a narrator inside our own heads. Sometimes, when this internal voice reads our work back to us, it has difficulty distinguishing between the words we wrote and the words we think we wrote. The voice may skip repeated words, or slide too easily across choppy sentences. After all, it knows what we meant to say.
When you read out loud, on the other hand, you are more certain to read what’s actually on the page–and the page doesn’t lie.
When we read out loud, we pause at commas and take longer pauses at periods and paragraph breaks. This forces us to pay more attention to tone and pacing. Does this sentence go on too long? Are there any unnecessary commas? (Some writers like to stick commas after a “so” or “but” at the start of a sentence: “But, where am I going to find someone to listen to my short story at this late hour?” Read a few sentences like that out loud, and you’ll realize how unnatural they sound.)
When we read out loud, we are more likely to catch grammar mistakes, awkward word choices, and bizarre sentences. I recently blogged about one such sentence, calling out a contracting company for writing on their website, “It is our goal to provide a knowledgeable foundation in which our pillars of professionalism and excellence soar from.”
That sentence may have sounded profound to the internal narrator, but how do you suppose it would have fared when read by that brutally honest, out-loud voice?
That voice may be intimidating–but never forget that it’s there for your safety. If you’re going to take the time to write something, and take the time to really read it.
Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.