1. You’ll find missing words.
When we’re writing—especially when we’re racing to meet a deadline or just really immersed in the storyline—our brains tend to move faster than our hands. Even the most experienced writers and editors tend to leave out a word now and then, and are surprised later on when they catch it or it’s pointed out by someone else. It’s especially difficult to “see” a missing word when you’ve recently been working on a document because you’re intimately familiar with the text. Unless you’re reading out loud, your brain will automatically fill in missing words and you won’t catch them.
2. You’ll find new mistakes introduced during self-editing.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve done this. A sentence will be grammatically perfect, but I’ll decide to play with the syntax or change the wording altogether. I’ll quickly do the edit and move on without stopping to read the sentence over again. Here’s an example:
Before: Matt wanted to stop by the hardware store on the way to the game.
After: Matt wanted to stop by at the deli and the hardware store on the way to the game.
The new phrase was added, but I accidentally left behind the “by.”
3. You’ll catch repeated words.
I don’t mean words that you accidentally typed twice (though this does happen); I mean words that are repeated too close to one another. Here’s an example (look for the word “yesterday”):
“I want to apologize for what I said yesterday,” Keisha told her. “My mom has been sick and we spent five hours in the ER yesterday. I had a really tough day yesterday and I guess I took it out on you.”
4. You’ll be able to hear the rhythm of your writing.
This is something that will come naturally to your readers, but not to you. As I mentioned above, you’re too close to the writing, and you’ve got several versions of the text floating around in your brain. Regardless of the type of writing you’re doing, it’s important to vary the length and rhythm of your sentences so that the reader’s “ear” doesn’t get fatigued or annoyed. Reading aloud will enable you to catch trouble spots where the rhythm of your sentences needs work. See if you can find the problem with this paragraph:
He went upstairs to check on her. She’d gone to sleep in no time flat. “Hey there,” he said, picking her up. She yawned and stretched, her eyes still closed.
On first glance, there’s not much wrong with the rhythm here. The first two sentences may be a bit stilted, but the dialogue adds a nice break for the eye. But what about the ear? If you read the paragraph out loud, you’ll realize that each sentence has exactly eight syllables. Each sentence also has the “accented” sounds in all the same places.
Even if your reader probably won’t be able to pinpoint why the paragraph sounds “odd,” they might be left with a feeling of monotony and irritation, simply because of the rhythm.
5. You’ll be able to make your punctuation more intuitive.
If you’ve ever studied a style manual, you’re familiar with the complicated rules governing the use of punctuation. But there are times, especially when it comes to writing dialogue, when you’ll want to bend those rules or make a judgment call when they aren’t enough. Let’s take a look:
He stormed back into the room. “I can’t believe this. You not only snuck out last night; now I find out you stole cash out of my wallet too!”
The first sentence makes the angry tone of the dialogue clear. Even without editing the punctuation, the reader will be able to picture the character’s face and feel the tension in the scene. But if you read it out loud, you’ll be able to hear how the semicolon makes that tension fall a bit flat. It’s not incorrect, but semicolons tend to carry a sense of formality and calm down the tone of a sentence. Changing to an em dash carries the energy of the first sentence all the way through.
He stormed back into the room. “I can’t believe this. You not only snuck out last night—now I find out you stole cash out of my wallet too!”
6. You’ll be able to cut down on your use of expletives and passive voice.
No, I don’t mean naughty words! Expletives are empty phrases that take up space but add no real meaning to a sentence. The most common culprits are “there is/are” and “it is,” often used to begin a sentence or phrase. It’s difficult to catch them because our brains are accustomed to skipping past these meaningless phrases (did you notice this sentence begins with one?). Reading aloud, especially if you’re keeping an ear out for empty words, can help you tighten your prose. Even in fiction, concise writing is more pleasing to the eye and the ear.
Wordy: It is now time for the students to submit their essays.
Concise: Students should submit their essays now.
“Avoid the passive voice” is one of those rules that are meant to broken. Sometimes using the passive voice is simply the best way to get your message across or set the mood you want. But it’s best to avoid overusing it, especially when that same message or mood can be conveyed without it. If you can train your ear to catch the “(‘to be’ verb) + participle” construction, your writing will be cleaner and more direct.
Passive voice: The desk was covered with teetering stacks of books and paper.
Active voice: Teetering stacks of books and paper covered the desk.
7. You’ll catch those pesky rhymes and alliterations.
Some writers like to occasionally use rhyming words or alliterations. But in general, these stylistic devices stick out like a sore thumb and should be avoided. They’re especially difficult to catch if they don’t “match” in terms of spelling. Here are some examples that you’re more likely to catch by reading aloud:
a notorious knave (alliteration)
kick the cat (alliteration)
there was a chance he’d missed some of the ants (rhyme)
she put on her coat and went out to vote (rhyme)