If I were allowed only one tool at my disposal when it comes to self-editing, I know without a doubt what it would be. After fifteen years of editing for writers, judging various writing contests, and attending three different critique groups, it’s a no-brainer. This secret is easy to do, doesn’t cost anything but a few minutes of your time, and doesn’t require hard work or discipline. You don’t have to purchase any special equipment or how-to books. In fact, it’s entirely free. Would you like to know what it is? (Drum roll, please.) My #1 Best Secret for Self-editing is this: Read your work out loud.
Okay, I can almost hear the collective groan. You were expecting something larger in scope, something more dramatic. Something life-changing, maybe? Stick with me for a moment.
Why Reading Your Writing Out Loud is Important
While it might seem like a waste of time to the busy writer, reading your work out loud has many benefits. Here are several good reasons.
Developing an ear for what works. When reading out loud, you catch sentences that, while grammatically correct, sound awkward upon hearing them. You find repetitive words to replace, thus avoiding dull passages. You learn cadence and pacing, which teaches you how to vary sentence structure to enhance your story or nonfiction piece.
Spotting errors that often go undetected. Because listening uses different parts of the brain, reading out loud can reveal missing or extra words, misplaced commas, and typos that you missed when editing the printed page.
Finding boring or overly long description. Reading in your head, it’s easy to miss scenes that run on too long or description that makes the reader yawn. In listening mode, you step into the reader’s shoes and see the story from his perspective.
Testing the tone of the piece. Maybe you were going for a casual voice for your essay, but upon reading it the prose sounds too formal. Or when reading a scene out loud, the demure girl next door sounds snarky. You could actually hear the sarcasm in her dialogue as opposed to when you simply read it in your mind.
Gaining confidence and proficiency by reading your work to others. If you happen to be a part of a critique group in which you read your work out loud, which I would highly recommend, you actually learn skills which can create opportunities in your writing career–public speaking, reading your work at author events, teaching writing workshops, making school presentations, and other writerly occasions.
A Tale of Two Critique Groups
But you’re likely thinking, where’s the proof? For years I’ve been attending a wonderful gathering of writers in Maryland to teach at their retreat. The attendees typically come from groups in which the pages to be critiqued are sent out in advance to members. Members then read through the pages and jot down notes for discussion on meeting night once a month.
Contrast that with the way my own critique group operates. We show up once a week with pages in hand, enough copies for each person attending, and typically read ten or fewer pages. Then we go around the table and offer our critique as well as make notes on the copies.
So what do these different approaches reveal? Both groups have talented writers, some more than others, but when the groups are averaged out they rank about equal in terms of ability. I’ve worked with many of these writers on their projects, and I’m definitely impressed with the quality of their stories. But our group has a distinct edge. We have fewer errors and repetitive words and better cadence and pacing due to varied sentence structure. Because we read our work out loud, we’ve already caught the overly long or boring description. And we don’t mind reading our work out loud to others because it’s a weekly habit.
It might sound like a small thing–the practice of reading your writing out loud–but I’ve witnessed a lapse in skills with writers who leave the “writing read out loud” critique groups to attend the “review pages ahead of time and comment” groups. I liken it to an athlete showing up to the gym. I work on developing my ear on a weekly basis, and it gives me an edge over writers who don’t.
Now here’s my challenge. For the next month, read your work out loud and then evaluate the process for yourself. Did you find more errors? Were you able to spot those awkward sentences or dull passages of description? Has the cadence and pacing of your writing improved? If you attend critique group, did anyone comment on the quality of your writing? If you stick with it for a month, write and tell me about your experiences. Whether good or bad, we can talk about it in the comments.