When Don Murray arrived in the newsroom for his first day on the job as writing coach for The Boston Globe, he turned to his new boss and said: “I can tell you who your three best writers are.”
Then the Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of “Writing to Deadline” proceeded to do just that.
“How did you know?” the editor asked.
“Their lips move when they write,” Murray said.
Reading your copy aloud—hearing your words instead of just staring at them—is one of the techniques that separates master writers from the might-have-beens.
“The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader,” said poet Robert Frost.
Do your lips move when you write? Reading your copy aloud will make you a better writer. So perform a sound check on your copy.
Benefits of reading aloud
Listening to your copy will help you:
1. Reduce errors. Your eyes are such good editors, they can “fix” your copy as they view it. Your ears will catch what your eyes miss.
Students taking remedial writing courses at the City University of New York, for instance, eliminated 60 percent of their grammatical errors by reading their copy aloud, according to Richard Andersen, author of “Writing That Works.”
2. Make your copy conversational. We want our copy to sound the way we do when we speak—not like some computer spit it out. Take this sounds-the-way-you-speak passage by Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, calling attention to a great bottom line in his 2006 letter to shareholders:
“Below is the tally on our underwriting and float for each major sector of insurance. Enjoy the view, because you won’t soon see another like it.”
3. Make your copy sound better. Reading aloud can smooth out rough passages, reduce fits and starts, and otherwise make your copy flow instead of stutter. It can help you find a voice and tone for your piece.
“Effective writing has the illusion of speech without its bad habits,” Murray writes. “The reader hears a writer speaking to a reader. The writing should flow with grace, pace and clarity—not the way we speak but, better than that, the way we should speak.”
4. Cut through the clutter. When you read your copy aloud, your tongue will trip over nine-syllable words; you’ll run out of breath before the ends of long sentences; and you’ll stumble over redundancies, jargon and passive voice.
In short, you’ll cut through the clutter in your copy.
Find a private place and read your copy aloud. When you identify passages that need help, talk them out until you hear something that works better.
Your readers will thank you.