October 9

The lost art of reading aloud

    (Can I just say how much I love The Princess Bride?)

    My dad read aloud to my three siblings and me fairly consistently for at least 10 years, and he didn't waste a lot of time on Dr. Seuss books. The first book I remember him reading aloud was Tolkien's The Hobbit, and we progressed from there. I'm quite sure that the culture of reading aloud in our house contributed to my “natural knack” for grammar (to read my qualms with attributing writing abilities to inherent talent, read this post).

    Somewhere along the line, though, we grow out of reading aloud. We learn to read silently (and much more quickly) in our heads, and we essentially drop the habit entirely, unless we're reading board books to our kids.

    How many hours a day do you think you spend reading words that are written on paper or some sort of screen? Think about it – not just books, but also emails, an online article someone sent you, Facebook and Twitter feeds, text messages. It’s entirely possible that we are losing the art of reading aloud.

    Why does reading aloud matter?

    I would say that reading aloud is perhaps the best way for you to cultivate an engaging, authentic writing voice. Writers tend to fall on one of the following two ends of the spectrum:

    On one end, writers who focus heavily on good grammar often write with an almost robotic sounding voice. Afraid to break any nitty-gritty grammar rule, they sacrifice their human voice for the sake of correctness.

    On the other end, writers who don’t really know grammar very well often write sentences that run on or end abruptly or just don’t quite make a complete thought. Insecure and unsure of grammar rules, they just try to string some words together and don’t re-read what they’ve written.

    Neither type of writer is tapping into his truly powerful writing voice, and both types of writers could, with just a little effort.

    The power of reading aloud

    Reading aloud helps you to hear the tone in your own writing. Editors have a habit of saying, “Your tone is really flat” or “disengaged” or something equally unhelpful, and writers sometimes don’t have a clue how to fix it. But when you read something you’ve written aloud, you can much more easily grasp the tone. You begin to hear how the short, curt sentences sound impersonal or how the long, windy sentences sound soap-box-ish. If you really want to get a good grasp of the tone, record yourself reading your writing aloud and play it back!

    Reading aloud helps you to catch grammar errors. Even people who are really uncertain of their grasp of grammar can catch around 85% of grammar errors when they read their writing aloud (my own estimation). You’re almost certain to hear every subject-verb agreement issue, run-on sentence, incomplete thoughts, and typo. You might not catch every comma, but you will almost certainly catch the most egregious errors.

    Reading aloud helps you to clarify your logic. When you read aloud, it’s easier for you to put on the perspective of your reader. You catch those logical gaps, when you jump from one point to the next without fully explaining yourself. You’re more likely to catch logical gaps that are close to each other, such as when they’re in the same sentence, rather than separated by paragraphs and pages, but reading aloud does help.

    Reading aloud helps you to sound more like yourself. Part of the deep embarrassment of reading aloud is coming face-to-face with the fact that it sounds like someone else talking! As you read, you’re groaning, thinking, “This is so dumb!” But I would encourage you to catch yourself right at those moments of thinking, “This is so dumb,” because that may just be the spot where your voice sounds really inauthentic, and maybe that’s exactly where you should focus your editing efforts.

    The key is not to cheat!

    I know you because you’re just like me. I’ll start reading something of mine aloud and think, “Ah, well, I’ll skip this paragraph…and the next one….that one’s fine…” and before I know it, I’ve skipped over most of the piece!

    And I know the excuses. I read visually so much faster than I can read verbally. This is a waste of time. I’m sure the writing is good enough. I have a million other things to do.

    But, honestly, it doesn’t really take that long to read something aloud. If you can read approximately 150 words per minute (the average), you can read a 10-page paper in 15 minutes. And those 15 minutes will be much more productive editing time than reading and re-reading the paper a dozen times to catch tiny errors. Plus, re-reading a paper a dozen times does not guarantee you’ll ever catch the errors in your tone, grammar, logic, and writing voice. 150 words per minute is time well spent.

    What do you think?

    Have you ever tried incorporating the technique of reading aloud? Do you think you’d ever record yourself reading aloud?


    Do you read aloud to your kids?


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