Improve the quality of your writing by reading it out loud

Improve the quality of your writing by reading it out loud

The content we write has to meet a lot of requirements. Sometimes it’s hard to read and edit your own work and capture all the changes needed to meet the necessary standards. In this article I share a tried and tested method for checking your content. It’s something any writer can start to do right away and see immediate results.

You’ve got a detailed brief and understand what you need to write. You also know who you’re writing for, why and where it will be published. You’ve grasped the style required too. Even with that checked off, it’s still important to have a rigorous editing and proofreading process. There will always be areas for improvements and things that have been missed. You may have rounds of editing and proofing for:

  • spelling and grammar
  • fact checking and accuracy
  • style issues
  • tone, pace and rhythm
  • structure
  • clear language
  • passive and active voice

Every writer will have their own process for editing and checking their work. One method I always use is to read my work out loud. It’s such an easy but important technique. I’ve even included ‘read it out loud’ as a tip or a must-do task in content style guides I’ve created.

This process has proved to be effective for my own work and I want to share when I use this technique and the benefits of doing so.

When should you read your work out loud?

Get ready for the favourite of all content strategist answers, it depends. You’ll find your own process for reading work out loud and when it works best for you. You can read all versions out loud of course, but I do it on three occasions, one of which I use sometimes and the other two I always do for the content that I write.

Visualisation of workflow stages for writing an article. 7 circles show the stages in a line from left to right and stages include write, review and edits. The first draft and final draft stages have labels for 'read aloud.'

An example of a simplified workflow for writing an article with emphasis on what stages are read out loud.

1. Read out loud as you write your first draft

This is the technique I don’t always do. Sometimes to get started with my writing, I talk out loud and type what I’m saying. I then continue to dictate the first draft to myself without thinking too much about it. The purpose is to strive for progress and not perfection. As I noted in my article for Digital Drum on writer’s block, ‘once you’re going, it’s easier to keep going.’

I always start the same way, by saying out loud to myself, 'in this article I'm going to ...' So in this case I'm not reading out loud to spot issues, I'm doing it to get to a completed first draft.

2. Read your first draft out loud

Regardless of how I get there, when I have my first draft, I read it out loud. I do this all the time. Reading the first draft is when I capture the longest list of issues and amends. That’s to be expected, it’s the least polished state the article will ever be in.

By reading the first draft I immediately get a sense of the tone, structure and pace of the article so I can quickly correct the course if needed.

Reading out loud can be uncomfortable. I focus on making notes of all the things that I need to amend or remove, plus gaps in what I’m saying too. This stops me from getting distracted by thinking, 'do I really sound like that?'

3. Read your final draft out loud

Once I’ve made my changes and been through my usual editing and proofreading process, I read my final draft out loud. This is also essential for me. Sometimes at the end of this task I’m ready to publish. Other times I may notice a final few issues I hadn’t picked up on. If I do make any changes at this stage, I will continue to read out the next draft and repeat this process until I’m happy.

I used to read every draft out loud but I've found it most beneficial when I read out loud on the first and final drafts only. Between those two I'm working on the details, restructuring, getting deep on the information, adding examples etc. I also action the list I captured on the first read along with anything I spot through my regular editing.

No amount of reading out loud will guarantee you’ll notice every issue, mistake or typo. Sometimes we’re too close to our words to be subjective and observant. This is why I don’t write and edit on the same day.

Next I’ll share specific reasons why it's a helpful technique to add to your writing and editing process. This is where I hope to convince you to read your own content out loud if you don’t already do so.

Reasons why reading your content out loud can make it better

We process information differently when we see it and when we hear it. When I was studying I learned best through repetition and reading out loud. The latter is known to improve memory. As noted in this BBC Future article, ‘people consistently remember words and texts better if they read them out loud than if they read them silently.’

When we read content out loud, we slow down. We can be so used to reading our own words that sometimes we can’t see what we’re looking at.

By saying the words out loud, the awareness of each word increases as well as how they sound together. It’s a quick way to understand if our content is readable and easy to understand. More specIfically, here are some of the issues you can spot.

Being clear or complicated

Reading out loud will reveal if what you’ve written is clear or complicated. Certain sentences may stand out as not making sense. If you have to read a part of your content more than once then maybe it’s too complicated.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Richard Branson (Founder of The Virgin Group) shared:

When we launched a new company, I reviewed the ads and marketing materials and asked those presenting to read everything aloud to test the phrasing and concept. If I could grasp it quickly, then it passed with muster. We would get our message across only if it was understandable at first glance.

Hearing your thoughts, ideas and examples also brings an understanding of your logic. You may end up feeling like the point you’ve made isn’t detailed enough or doesn’t make sense. Reading out loud isn’t only about spotting mistakes. It’s also about challenging yourself on what you think and how you present that information.

Sentence length and structure

If you run out of breath when reading your content out loud, you probably need to add some punctuation. In all seriousness, it’s a good way to understand your sentence length and the entire structure of your work. Does it flow? Are you stopping and starting a lot? Do your sections form an appropriate narrative? These questions can all be answered as you hear your own words.

Repetition and overused phrasing

We all have things that we say without realising we are saying them. Read any unedited podcast or interview transcript and you’ll see how people speak. I’ve done this for podcasts I’ve been a guest on and soon realised I started a lot of sentences with ‘yeah’ or ‘so.’ I had no idea I was doing it.

Reading aloud surfaces those patterns in the writing and can help to remove them from future work too, once that awareness is present.

The insights may even be that one word is used a lot. Judge this in context. I can’t not say ‘read aloud’ several times in this article but I can be sure not to say it in every sentence or in the same way each time. It’s also clear if the same point is being made in different sections of the article. You’ll find yourself thinking - 'I’ve already said that.'

Typos and mistakes

It’s still possible to miss typos when we read out loud. Other common issues that become more noticeable might be repeated words such as: I went to to buy a new typewriter. There are all sorts of mistakes that can be made more obvious when hearing them. On the other end of the spectrum, it may be noticed that words are missing. I’ve captured many sentences that have no end by reading them out loud. They were sitting there unfinished.

Too much filler content

Reading content out loud is great for editing. Sometimes I end up frowning or scoffing at myself when I’m reading my work. I have the sudden realisation that what I’ve written adds nothing of value to the article. It’s neither informative, useful or helpful. As you hear your content it will become apparent what can be removed entirely. There’s no place for filler.

Identifying gaps in your content

I sometimes notice gaps in what I’ve written. I’ll find myself thinking of a point I’ve not already made. This can result in adding a new bullet point, sentence or entire section. Whatever the scope of the gap that’s been noticed, the important point is that now it can be filled.

Pace and rhythm

How the content works together will soon be heard and understood. You may find yourself reading quickly due to shorter, snappier sentences. Perhaps you’re reading slowly due to longer sentences. You may find yourself tripping over your own words due to clunky phrasing.

Whatever pace and rhythm you naturally write to, reading aloud will make you more aware of your style and then you can adjust accordingly if you need to.

How your writing sounds

The tone of your writing will become apparent when you hear it. The tone may need to change for each article, client or audience group. Understanding the audience you're creating content for is essential to accurately critique the tone. If you’re writing for circumstances where your audience may be in a heightened state of anxiety, the tone of your content is important. Your content could be reassuring them or making them more stressed. No business wants to be on the wrong side of that line. Do you need to be direct? Do you need to show empathy? What you’re writing, who for and how it sounds all have to be considered.

Whether you’re aiming to be serious or more light-hearted, when you hear the words aloud you’ll understand if you’ve written in the desired tone. Many of the variables with tone can be subjective. What I consider to be conversational may be different to your own perspective. Tone can be hard to judge. Reading content out loud is a very useful process for trying to understand your tone with your audience and their circumstances in mind.

What content should I read out loud?

In short, anything. You've nothing to lose by reading everything you read out loud. I've used this technique for:

  • email subject lines
  • newsletters
  • articles
  • website pages
  • social media posts
  • paid adverts
  • onboarding flows

Even if you read it and think, that's perfect, publish with confidence. It's still been a good use of time. I've written newsletters and wanted the tone to seem like I was writing to a friend, reading it out loud really helped to achieve that. For shorter content like subject lines and social posts, you can quickly understand if your need to be brief comes across as blunt or short but sweet. If you write it, you can read it out loud so don't limit using this method to only long-form content.

A powerful tool for any writer

Reading your content out loud isn’t always a comfortable process. Many people, me included, don’t like the sound of their own voice. But it’s a technique that’s free and one you can start doing immediately. You can quickly get a sense of how suitable your content is for your audience based on the factors outlined in this article such as structure, pace and tone. You'll become more aware of what you're saying and how you're saying it. All of this helps to ensure the content you're creating is clear, understandable and readable, with your audience in mind.

If you give it a go, I’d love to hear if it helped. Find me on Twitter or LinkedIn to let me know.

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