Melissa Rothman, Consultant
It’s getting to be that time of year. Temperatures are dropping, the leaves are changing, and the mild weather beckons us to venture outdoors for a whiff of that fresh fall air. However, for college students, fall marks the approach of another type of season, one that is riddled with anxiety and dread…crunch time. Due dates for final papers are right around the corner, final exams are in sight, and yet while we are just beginning to feel that mid-semester lull, we are painfully aware of the need to begin planning for these end-of-semester requirements. However, while it is awfully tempting to procrastinate, I would suggest that now is the time to kick our homework habits into a new gear and I have a few strategies to help you through the writing process.
If you’ve been to the Writing Center, you know that we always ask writers to read their drafts out loud. There are many reasons that we’ve adopted this as a common practice. Thinking about our life experience with language and communication, most of us will notice that we have far more experience with speaking and listening rather than with reading. So in many ways, hearing drafts read aloud allows us to approach the writing process in forms that we are much more familiar with.
In the early stages of the writing process, we are mainly concerned with getting our ideas written down on paper before we forget them. There is of course an ordering process that goes on in our brain while this occurs, but it is often unique and idiosyncratic, and unfortunately all of this background information of how we came to formulate these ideas is often left out of the paper.
Being a listener of our own writing can help tremendously in spotting these gaps. Do to the unique cognitive experience of reading we tend to fill in a lot of the “gaps,” especially when we are reading our own work. Think about it. How many times have you proofread a piece multiple times, and still found typos, misspellings, and faulty punctuation? Our brains have a way of correcting our mistakes for us. They know what to expect, so they fill in the correct information for us. And this goes beyond the mere mechanics of the written language. As readers of our own work, we also have a way of filling in other types of gaps, ones that are crucial to filling in the background information that enables our work to make logical sense to other readers.
There is a ton of data that we, as the writers, take for granted that the reader may not know or pick up on. For example, have you ever used a quote from a text and expected it to speak for itself? Then you found in a second reader’s feedback that he or she was unsure about what you were trying to say by using that quote. This is because we understand that quote from a different perspective. Unlike the reader, we are privy to the context surrounding it. We’ve read all of the lines leading up to that quote. Likewise, we saw what the author did in the following sentences. And while the quote itself may seem like an exemplary statement of the purpose of the piece, we as outside readers need that surrounding context to make sense of it.
As listeners of our own work, we are bypassing some of those cognitive fill-in processes that occur when we read silently, and are able to evaluate our text from a new communicative standpoint. Reading aloud helps us hear the ways we have mapped the order of ideas in a paper and evaluate how well it makes sense. Since we are evaluating it from a spoken standpoint, we are able to identify more quickly when something “doesn’t sound right.” Transitions that may seem obvious when we are reading are brought out in the open and we are able to hear when we shift ideas too abruptly.
Likewise grammatical errors are easier to spot such as when we forget a word, or form awkward sentences. Sometimes our sentences are too long, or we repeat words and ideas too often. Reading out loud is one of the most powerful proofreading techniques available for spotting these types of errors.
Listening to our work can also be the most effective tool for evaluating the tone in our work. Sometimes, in reading aloud, we find that we are way too casual or chatty and we can question whether or not we are portraying ourselves as an authoritative figure on the topic. Conversely, we can also question if we are being too formal. Listening allows us to gain a bit more of an objective standpoint. It enables us to hear the possible ways that outsiders interpret our work.
So, now that I’ve fully convinced you of the awesome benefits that reading aloud offers, you can read through some of my quick tips for how to go about it.
- Use a hard print copy
Hard printed copies not only allow a refuge from the mind numbing glare of the laptop screen, but when we read on paper, we can follow along with our finger. This helps us to avoid skipping over things that we might read on through when looking at a screen. Likewise, if we get hung up on specific areas, we can underline and mark up the margins so that we can return to them later with a fresh perspective. This can really speed up the revision process.
- Try to read at a moderate pace
This will not only give us an authentic feel of our “voice,” but it will also allow us to see how the ordering of our ideas work and may highlight areas that need better transitions. Conversely, reading aloud slowly may allow us to mimic the mental processes that occur when we read silently, thus filling in those cognitive gaps that are missing in the work itself.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff
All too often, we as writers spend a great amount of time on fixing minor errors such as spelling and grammar, but in the end it’s all about the content and how well you present it in a comprehensible fashion. You can have a perfectly polished paper, but what’s the point if the ideas aren’t relevant or don’t make sense? Likewise, if you’re reading a powerfully written piece that really appeals to you as a reader, are you really going to discard it as nonsense due to a few silly comma splices? I’m not saying that editing for errors is not important, but this aspect of revision should always be saved for the final stages of the writing process.
- Have a friend read for you
Beforehand, tell them to read it exactly as it’s written, mistakes and all, and also have them read the entire piece without stopping. This way you can really get a feel for how your paper will be interpreted by others. Likewise, while someone else reads it, take notes on a separate piece of paper.
- Do a reverse outline while your friend reads
Reverse outlines are great for interpreting the ordering of our own work. If someone else reads aloud for you, it frees up your hands to quickly jot down the main gist of each paragraph. After they are finished, you can see how the flow of your topic operates, and perhaps identify areas of weakness, repetition, or ineffective ordering.
Now, fellow luddites such as myself may respond to my next suggestion with a familiar mantra: “Technology Arrggh!” As students we all have a precarious relationship with our laptops. Beyond our loathing of Blackboard’s counterintuitive interface or our frustration with the shortcomings of Microsoft’s grammar and spellcheck program, most of us have had that moment in our academic career when we’ve gone on a writing binge, trying to complete a paper at the last minute, and the unthinkable happens; our computer crashes and we lose all of our hard work and have to start from scratch. I myself have come dangerously close to pitching my laptop through my living room window multiple times. However, technology does have its benefits too when not driving us to the brink of madness. One of these is the text-to-speech software application that allows our computers and other devices read aloud for us.
Some of us may be uncomfortable allowing others to read our work in the early stages of the writing process. In the Writing Center, many of our new clients begin a session by warning us that they are “not good writers” showing how self-conscious they are about their work. But it’s important to know that all writers struggle through the writing process with his or her own particular hurtles, and no one sits down and just completes a perfect draft in one sitting. Everyone has their own unique struggles with the writing process, and one of the fastest and most effective ways for working through those issues is by working with others. Likewise, the University Writing Center offers a safe and supportive environment for doing this. However, sometimes there are other obstacles such as time-constraints or scheduling conflicts keeping students from taking advantage of this helpful resource. This is where text-to-speech software can help. While technology can never completely fill in useful feedback that only human interaction can offer, it can enable us to read our work in alternative ways that can substitutes some of the helpful practices we perform in the Writing Center.
There are several web-based applications that allow computer and other devices to read texts allowed for you. However, I’ve found that some of these are very glitchy while other more operative ones can be expensive. You may not know this, but Microsoft Word actually has one built right into its program, and as an English major, I’ve had tons of experience with it and found it to be a pretty effective tool in the revision process. At this point you are probably asking “where is this handy tool and how do I use it?” Well, below I’ve included the steps for activating and using Word’s speech-to-text program.
1. Click the “Customize Quick Access Toolbar” arrow in the top left-hand corner of the screen.
2. Click “More Commands.”
3. In the “Choose commands from” list, select “All Commands.”
4. Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.”
5. Click “OK.”
6. Now the text to speech icon is available for as a quick access tool.
After you have added the Speak command to your Quick Access Tool Bar, you can have your text read to you by highlighting the portions you want to hear and then clicking the “Speak” command icon. If you want to hear your entire text read through, simply press “Control a,” and word will highlight your entire document before you select speech. If you are in the earlier revision process, where you are still organizing your ideas, I recommend you follow along by ear, and take good notes on a separate piece of paper, by either reverse outlining, or just simply jotting down ideas. If you are in the later stages of the writing process, I recommend reading along with your eyes, and pausing the application to correct punctuation and spelling errors.
But it’s important to remember that everyone’s process is different. You may be the type of writer that can’t move on until you correct minor errors along the way. This is fine so long as it’s not handicapping the flow of your process. Remember that while the lower order concerns will have to be addressed at some point in the writing process, it may be a more practical approach to save them for the final stages of revision. Remember, we often end up cutting, or completely revising entire chunks of our writing with an eye towards content. So you may end up spending a whole lot of time revising something to make it grammatically correct, only to find that that section ends up getting removed altogether. Regardless, do what works for you.