It’s a spring day in 1989. Four people take their places around a small table. In front of each of them are a couple of dozens of pages still warm from the Xerox machine. In what seems to be a perfectly synchronized gesture, they open the booklet on the first page when one of them reads out: “Do you know what this is all about? Do you know why we’re here? To be out.”
It is the table read of “The Seinfeld Chronicles, Episode 1,” and it is the first time the soon-to-be iconic characters come to life. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have been working on the script for that pilot episode for months, but this is the first time it is read aloud by the actors. They are not physically acting, and there is no camera on sight, but when the neatly typed text is animated with sound, intonation, rhythm, and flow, it becomes real. Like a two-dimensional drawing transforming into a three-dimensional object you can hold in your hands. That is why every movie, play, and TV show has a table read where the cast, sitting together, not playing or rehearsing, read the script aloud. Just to get a feel of how it sounds.
What works for screenplays equally works for any other type of written content. If you wish to perfect your text, read it aloud and read it (at least) twice.
Stating the obvious is rarely a good idea, but in this case, I am compelled to do so: reading the text you write before you publish it is an absolute must. Never publish anything, be it a social post or a long-form article, without reading it first, start to finish. The absolute minimum you have to do is to read your text as the audience will. If you take just a single thing from this article, let this be it.
Now, let’s take the practice of reading our text to the next level. Let’s turn up the volume and add some sound.
When you read silently, the average reading speed is 250 words per minute. That is a lot of words to take in, let alone process. So, like the case is in many other tasks, our brain utilizes shortcuts and methods to increase reading effectiveness. The most common ones are filling the gaps and seamlessly correcting errors (which practically means ignoring them). Whole words and ideas might be missing from your text, and you might never notice, especially when you are the author of the text. After all, you know exactly what you wanted to say.
Other, more subtle yet profound aspects are also easy to ignore when reading silently. When you read 250 words per minute, everything “sounds” the same. You don’t hear the music of the text, its flow, its rhythm, and its tone. Many of these things could be captured intuitively if only we would slow down and add another sense to the visual experience of reading silently.
Reading aloud is the perfect way to do both.
The average talking speed in a conversation is 150 words per minute. If you “perform” your text as if you are giving a speech, your reading speed is likely to drop even further. And that is precisely what we are aiming for. The slower your read, the more insights you will have about the qualities of your text. When you read aloud, you also add hearing to the experience (instead of only seeing the text). Using this additional sense adds new types of information and new layers of insights about what works and what doesn’t in your text.
How to Read and Listen to Your Text
To make the most of reading your text aloud, read it as if you deliver a speech — as if you are talking to an audience. Speak slower than you would in a conversation, and animate your text. Imagine you perform it. Slowing down and animating the text will both emphasize many attributes and characteristics that may elude you otherwise.
So, what is it you should be looking for as you listen to yourself read?
Flow, Rhythm, and Tone
One can certainly get a sense of flow, rhythm, and tone when reading a text silently. However, it is much easier to do so when you read the text aloud. Flow, rhythm, and tone are attributes you hear. Trying to imagine them could work, but it is more natural to experience them through listening.
Some automated tools can help you identify long and cumbersome sentences and the overall tone of your text. Eventually, however, nothing can really replace our ears and our brain. If you feel a paragraph does not flow well, it probably doesn’t. If you feel the tone is preachy, it probably is. And if you keep changing the rhythm while you read, and it feels awkward, you will probably be able to improve that with little effort.
All you have to do is mindfully listen to yourself reading and be honest with yourself.
Things I might be saying to myself while reading my text:
- “This sentence does not end.”
- “I like the sound of these sentences.”
- “This has a nice ring to it.”
- “This paragraph sounded way too serious.”
- “The ending of the text is flat. It should be more enthusiastic.”
Repetitions, Omissions, and Consistency
When you read out, it is easier to identify repetitions of words and ideas. When you read silently, your brain will ignore some of them (that would be more effective from its perspective). But when you read slower and enunciate the words, repetitions are much harder to ignore. The same applies to omissions. Whether a word missing in the sentence or an idea missing in a logical argument, your brain can simply fill the gaps when you just see the text. When you read it aloud, these missing pieces are more likely to stand out.
The tendency to ignore repetition and fill the gaps has an even greater impact when you are the author of the text. Unlike reading unfamiliar content, your brain knows too much about what you wrote. It was your brain who wrote it, and therefore it is biased. While we cannot fully mitigate this bias by reading aloud, the pace of reading and the new sense through which the text is consumed increase the chance of overcoming it. This might actually be the first time your brain hears the text, and it is often a significantly different experience.
Things I might be saying to myself while reading my text:
- “That sounded too familiar. Didn’t I just say that?”
- “How did I come to that conclusion?”
- “The paragraph started in the present tense and shifted to the past tense.”
- “I switched terminology somewhere along the way.”
- “I am using Consistency in these examples, but it is not mentioned in the preceding text.”
This last bullet is an actual issue in the text you are reading. Have you noticed it? It might actually be OK (or even a good idea) not to mention Consistency and settle for a couple of examples. The point is that this was not a conscious decision I made in the flow of writing. When I am reading the text, it becomes more noticeable. Now, I can consider if I wish to change that or leave the text as is. That is why reading out is essential: it raises awareness of these issues that are otherwise hard to identify.
Making a Point
Last but not least, when you read your text aloud, it is easier to verify you get to the point. When I am in the flow of writing, I often get carried away: writing things that sound good in my head but actually do not promote the story I am trying to tell or the message I am aiming to convey. When reading it silently and moving on quickly, this subtlety is easy to miss. When I read a paragraph aloud, however, the fact that it didn’t drive the text forward is often more apparent.
This is an excellent point to mention that reading the text to someone else can actually highlight this and the other aspects in brighter light. Of course, you can just send your text to a friend or a colleague for review, but the act of reading it out for someone else can promote an insightful discussion which is harder to achieve in an asynchronous review.
Things I might be saying to myself while reading my text:
- “What did I try to say in that paragraph (that I haven’t said in the preceding text)?”
- “That is a strong statement.”
- “The idea conveyed in this paragraph requires additional explanation.”
The Mechanics of Reading Your Text
Now that we understand the impact of reading our text aloud and we know what we should be looking for, I would like to share how I do it. You can create a different process or refine this one. The point is, you should experiment and understand what works best for you. Don’t settle with acknowledging that reading aloud is a good practice and leave everything else to chance. The way you are doing it can significantly affect the outcome.
First Read: Fixing on the Fly
The first time I read my draft aloud, I know there will be a lot to change, refine, and fix. To make these refinements effective, I make them as I read the text. Well, almost. I read the text aloud, and after each paragraph, I pause to consider how it sounds, does it deliver the message I aimed for, and whether I should refine anything. If I am not happy with the paragraph I’ve just read, I will stop the reading and edit it. Once I’m done, I will read aloud the new revision of the section and continue to the next one.
I find a few benefits in reading the text one paragraph at a time and addressing the issues I find on the fly. First, it saves me the overhead of taking notes, which would also break the reading flow. I can’t imagine remembering everything that I want to change during the first read, so implementing the changes after each paragraph is more manageable. Second, fixing the segment I’ve just read allows me to read the better version and seamlessly continue to the next section. The alternative, which I do not recommend, would be to continue to the next segment knowing that I am not happy with what I have read so far.
So, while I am reading one paragraph at a time, I also pay attention to the flow between paragraphs. Whether I changed the preceding text or not, I get a sense of the transitions between segments.
Second Read: Make a Speech
After the first read, I know I am happy with each of the paragraphs and how the text flows between adjacent ones. The chances of radical changes at this point are much lower, and so this is the perfect time to read the text as my audience hopefully will: from beginning to end, without any interruptions. I imagine that I talk in front of an audience, and so I read at a slightly slower pace than I normally talk. I also change the tone and speed depending on the text as I would when delivering a talk.
During the second read, I notice the overall tone, the flow, the consistency, and of course, the logical structure of the text. Since I design the content before I write it and have already read it aloud (and revised it) once, I am pretty confident I won’t stumble upon significant issues. And yet, this read is crucial, especially if I manage to detach myself from everything I’ve done so far and approach the text as the reader would.
While significant problems at this point are less likely, every read triggers new insights. But I don’t want to break the flow of reading to address them. To resolve that, I use small markings on the text in places I wish to revisit later. They don’t describe the problem I identified and obviously not the solution (which might require some thought). They serve only as a visual cue for me to remember to address something later once I finish reading. Most importantly, they have minimal impact on the flow of reading.
Once I finish the second read, I address the issues I found. If I feel I made a lot of changes, even if they are minor, I will re-read the entire text again to verify all these changes didn’t break the flow, the consistency, or any other aspect.
Reading your text before you send it out to the world is essential. Reading it aloud, animating it and listening to it, is priceless. And as strange as it may sound, you shouldn’t limit yourself to reading your posts and articles aloud. If you are writing a memo or an important email, reading it aloud and at least twice is likely to trigger insights and potential refinements that would otherwise be in your blind spot.
Read aloud. Read twice.
Read aloud something you wrote in the past and write down your thoughts about the qualities of the text.
From time to time, read aloud articles, posts, or part of books written by others.