Exercises and Tools #4: Editing by Ear

If a sentence sounds weird, if you stumble over a long word that twists your tongue, or if you almost suffocate before the end of the sentence – then you should revise your prose. To identify these issues, you should read your text aloud. Reading what you wrote aloud is to edit by ear – an obviously neglected tool for improving ones texts. But authors of books about writing suggest it as a valuable tool for revising (e.g. Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, 2007).

I’ve only begun editing by ear since writing this blog. Before that I never seriously thought about reading aloud. I guess I would have felt silly talking to myself. But I found out that it makes a difference whether I just think about what I wrote or actually pronounce it. While many scholars read their texts aloud if it’s a conference paper, they might not do so when it’s a long PhD thesis or journal article.

That writers don’t necessarily like to read aloud became obvious to me when I led workshop participants to read paragraphs they provided themselves. One participant didn’t like this part. And although I explained why they should read aloud, he wasn’t convinced. Even if it takes longer to read a text this way, or if it’s embarrassing, it nonetheless helps to spot text elements that should be edited. The exercise isn’t about how well we can read, but how the prose we write sounds.

So, if you gasp for breath, you might want to shorten the sentence or make it into two. If you twist your tongue while pronouncing a long and fancy noun, you might want to look for a shorter and simpler word with the same meaning. And if the sentence doesn’t seem to make sense when reading it aloud – if it hurts your ear –, consider a more thorough revision.

Next week, I will begin another post series that deals with academic text genres. And soon I start yet another post series. I will continue with the Exercises and Tools when I have new things to say about them.

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