“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Self-editing techniques that I teach include reading over your written draft out loud, which reveals important cues as to where edits and improvement are needed. This practice is guaranteed to help you get better at clarity, emphasis, cohesion, brevity, authenticity, pacing, rhythm, tone, cadence, segue, and rapport.
But, there is another use of your voice that could be even more valuable to you as you write. You know that you want to connect with your audience in an engaging way so that they don’t skip over large sections of your writing piece or simply put it down without finishing. The best way to accomplish that engagement is to be conversational—include the reader by having empathy for what they are thinking, feeling, and wondering as they read your words. The opposite tact would be to sound too technical, full of jargon, or to preach or drone on with oh-so-many adjectives. What you want to be sure of is how it sounds. As the extraordinary author Elmore Leonard said as one of his top tips for writers, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Note he said “sounds.” You can use your voice to not only check your writing, but to compose it.
Try composing what you want to write in your mind’s ear or speak it out loud. As if you were speaking to someone (imagine an avatar of your target reader), simply say what you want to convey, then write that. This can be done with or without dictation tools such as an app or software. I dictate both with and without recording assistance.
Readers (I don’t mean audio book listeners) “hear” in their mind what they’re reading on the page. You don’t want to have them stumble or stop: “What was that you’re trying to say?” “Can you get to the point?” “What’s that big word even mean?”
When a reader “hears” and simultaneously digests your writing, it is so yummy. They’ll eat it up and come back for more.
So, use your voice to compose before you write, and to read aloud what you wrote and listen to how it sounds. Again, if it sounds like writing…
I know from personal experience that when you hear written words that flow when spoken out loud, the impact can be profound.
Charles Laughton (1899 – 1962) was an English stage and film actor and among the first recorded narrators. I was a young child when I learned his name (and how to pronounce it). I was barely of reading age, but old enough to be attention-held and captivated as my father played a record album of Laughton narrating stories. The album (released in 1958) included Laughton reading “Garden of Eden,” “The Fiery Furnace,” “Noah’s Ark,” and “David and Goliath.”
You know how foreign language teachers instruct students to listen to recordings and even watch entire movies where the language they want to learn is being spoken, exclusively? One thing this teaches is how sentences sound when spoken by native speakers. I’m convinced that my early writing skills and lifelong love of writing were deeply influenced by listening so attentively to beautifully written stories. My brain was imprinted with “what sounded right.” (This is also how I learned proper grammar, not by studying terms and rules.)
One way to more intently practice this is to join a writers’ group and participate in both reading your writing out loud and also focusing as others read their work out loud for you to hear. Other opportunities abound when you search out public readings by best-selling authors (virtual or in-person events). Colleges, universities, book stores and libraries are where to check. Whenever there is an open mic opportunity, step up and read your writing out loud to others.
This may be a new concept to you, but it is recommended by many acclaimed authors. Beginning writers should do this too–those who don’t make the effort to read their writing aloud are missing an easy way to find and fix problems.
It’s difficult to believe the effect can be so pronounced, but writers who try reading aloud will often stand up to do so and then immediately sit and write notes to themselves about all the skips and scratches they just became acutely aware of through what they heard.
One more important distinction: Don’t just listen for “how it sounds”; also, listen for “how it lands.” This is a deeper level of listening, where you put yourself in your reader’s shoes, so to speak, and notice how it feels after hearing the words. Again, this empathetic practice will reveal places and ways you can improve your writing.
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