A Tip for Better Writing: Read it Out Loud

Reading Out Loud

After reading Peter Elbow’s great book on writing called Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, I have made it a habit to read all my writing out loud before submitting to publication. This has helped me become more objective in my writing. Although it may seem a little unnatural or exhausting (especially if it is a long piece of writing) to read every word out loud, I have found it to be an indispensable tool.

Fixing Technical Mistakes

Reading writing out loud has a few benefits. First, it slows our thinking down since we often read slower out loud then we do in our heads. When we slow down, we pay more attention to each word. This way, it is much easier to find missing or misspelled words as well as other grammatical mistakes. This tip has helped me reduce the number of errors in my writing.

Deepening Your Writing

But the benefits go deeper than simply the cosmetic correction of grammar. As Elbow explains, “When we take the time to insist that every sentence feel right in the mouth and sound right in the ear, the process cajoles our written language into comfortable intonation units.”  In other words, we start to notice how our writing sounds. Is it stilted? A little too stuffy? Or perhaps it isn’t formal enough. We can also hear the flow of the language. Often, I find myself stumbling over the word order of what I have written despite it being grammatically correct.

Bringing Life to Characters

It also helps me hear how a character is speaking. I can better pay attention to the emotions the character is expressing as well as his or her speech patterns. It has helped me make my characters sound more alive.

Overall, I have found reading my work out loud helps me tighten my writing. I have taught many students this tip and both they and I have seen (and heard) the benefits it brings.





How Can We Scaffold Our Writing?

When we want to become better writers, it can be useful to search for new ideas and strategies that will help us reframe our thinking and see our writing more objectively. To this end, I have begun to think of writing a text as constructing a building. We start with nothing, and in the end we have a building that our imagination can wander through. Part of the process of constructing a building is to use scaffolding. This can be a useful metaphor to apply to the process of writing.

Scaffolding writing is sentences and phrases that states an idea such as “he was sad.” This isn’t a particularly well expressed idea, and there would be numerously more subtle ways to express it. But if we recognize this type of sentence in our writing as ‘unfinished’ then we can come back to it and work in it some more. This scaffolding sentences “he was sad” holds an idea until the writer has processed it more and can rework it in a more sophisticated and meaningful way.

Another example of what I mean comes from a story that I am working on. The scaffolding sentence was: “David didn’t agree with what Joe said.” I didn’t feel satisfied that this sentence fully expressed the subtleties of their relationship. I rewrote it:

“David looked at him curiously. It was easy to see that Joe believed what he was saying.” I like this version better because it includes a gesture which, I feel, helps the sentence seem more real. Also, in the context of the story, it helps establish that David is using Joe.

So we can use scaffolding purposefully in our writing by constructing sentence such as “she yelled and screamed at her son.” In all likelihood, we would want to expand that idea into writing that includes gesture and dialogue. But for the first draft, when we might not yet able to really capture the full range of mood and action, writing a sentence that is used to scaffold those ideas is helpful. Scaffolding writing can be replaced with more subtle ideas, but at other times, an idea may need to be more overtly stated in an effort to draw out the tension or drama of the scene. In a way, scaffolding works as a marker for an area that a writer needs to re-look at and develop more thoroughly.

If we can train ourselves to recognize these moments in our writing and to think about what bigger and more interesting ideas are buried underneath, we can then disassemble (delete) the scaffolding sentence once the idea the sentence is marking has been more subtly or directly expressed.

Scaffolding can help us strike that rich balance between using the fewest amount of words while evoking the greatest amount of depth.




Can Focussing More on the Writing Processes Make us Better Writers?

Too often, writing education is focused on form (structure of an essay, short story, etc.) and not enough on the process of writing. How, for instance, does the process of generating ideas work? Or more importantly, perhaps: How will understanding the process of generating ideas help us become better writers?

Often, when the writing process is outlined in textbooks, it looks something like this: brainstorming, outlining, writing, revising. It is represented in a linear format when, in reality, it is more of a circular structure, always looping back on itself. Form is certainly important, but even if a writer has extensive knowledge of form, if they struggle with coming up with ideas, then they are at a disadvantage.

Process is something that should be of great interest to writers. If we have strategies and techniques to use when we get stuck in our writing, we will be better able to push beyond those difficult moments.

But there are other practical purposes for further investigating the writing process. Are there ways to push deeper into the ideas that we have, to dig beneath the surface idea and to something more insightful and interesting? How do we reframe our thinking to open us up to new perspectives?

Generating ideas is a more complex process than what strategies like simply mind mapping would indicate. Mind mapping is a process of association. By association one idea leads to another. But how do we move beyond a mere association of ideas? How do we generate novel ideas? This part of the writing process (developing ideas and brainstorming) does not end once a writer moves into the outlining stage of the writing process.

I think that better understand the writing process and focusing more on generative strategies can help a writer be better equipped to face the challenges of writing. What is the writing process and what are generative strategies? These are questions I hope to examine in this blog.

I’d welcome any thoughts on this.