“The ear, not the eye, is the final editor.”
Donald M. Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in Writing to Deadline
Read your copy aloud
When Don Murray arrived in the newsroom for his first day on the job as writing coach for the Boston Globe, he turned to his new boss and said: “I can tell you who your three best writers are.”
Then the Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of Writing to Deadline proceeded to do just that.
“How did you know?” the editor asked.
“Their lips move when they write,” Murray said.
Reading your copy aloud — hearing your words instead of just staring at them — is one of the techniques that separates master writers from the might-have-beens.
“The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader,” said poet Robert Frost.
Do your lips move when you write? Reading your copy aloud will make you a better writer. So perform a sound check on your copy.
Benefits of reading aloud
Listening to your copy will help you:
1. Reduce errors. Your eyes are such good editors, they can “fix” your copy as they view it. Your ears will catch what your eyes miss.
Students taking remedial writing courses at the City University of New York, for instance, eliminated 60 percent of their grammatical errors by reading their copy aloud, according to Richard Andersen, author of Writing That Works.
2. Make your copy conversational. We want our copy to sound the way we do when we speak — not like some computer spit it out. Take this sounds-the-way-you-speak passage by Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, calling attention to a great bottom line in his 2006 letter to shareholders:
“Below is the tally on our underwriting and float for each major sector of insurance. Enjoy the view, because you won’t soon see another like it.”
3. Make your copy sound better. Reading aloud can smooth out rough passages, reduce fits and starts, and otherwise make your copy flow instead of stutter. It can help you find a voice and tone for your piece.
“Effective writing has the illusion of speech without its bad habits,” Murray writes. “The reader hears a writer speaking to a reader. The writing should flow with grace, pace and clarity — not the way we speak but, better than that, the way we should speak.”
4. Cut Through the Clutter. When you read your copy aloud, your tongue will trip over nine-syllable words; you’ll run out of breath before the ends of long sentences; you’ll stumble over redundancies, jargon and passive voice.
In short, you’ll Cut Through the Clutter in your copy.
Now ear this.
“When I started reading my stories aloud for a living and I’d hear myself, I would think, ‘Good heavens, that needs to be pointed up,’ or ‘That should be out.’ Now, as I go to colleges to do readings, I have revised a lot of my early stories so that they read more succinctly. I wish I had learned early on what a good test reading aloud was.”
— Eudora Welty, American author
Find a private place and read your copy aloud. When you identify passages that need help, talk them out until you hear something that works better.
Your readers will thank you for it.
Cut Through the Clutter
Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to handle a special writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Cut Through the Clutter workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to cut the clutter in your own copy in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Cut Through the Clutter webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Cut Through the Clutter manual. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of Cut Through the Clutter tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
“Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle. That’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain
We’re clicking instead of concentrating
This is your brain on the Web: Constant problem solving (To click or not to click?) and divided attention (You’ve got mail) lead to cognitive overload.
And that makes it harder for readers to concentrate when reading your copy online.
In fact, a 2005 study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London showed that online multitasking temporarily lowers your IQ more than smoking marijuana does. (And is not nearly as entertaining a way to get stupid, from what I’ve read.)
Now, where was I going with this?
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr surveys the research on Web brain. Among the findings:
More than 20 years of research shows that links cause Web visitors to:
- Click instead of concentrating. Readers of hypertext often ended up clicking “through pages instead of reading them carefully,” according to a 1989 study.
- Click instead of finding. Participants in a 1990 study who searched for the answers to a series of questions in print outperformed those who searched Web pages.
- Click instead of comprehending. The more links included in a passage, the less people understood, found a 1999 study by Erping Zhu. That’s because readers have to devote more of their brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click them.
- Click instead of remembering. Readers of hypertext often “could not remember what they had and had not read” in a 1990 experiment.
Bottom line: There’s “very little support that hypertext will lead to an enriched experience of the text,” according to a 2005 survey of research (PDF) by Diana DeStefano and Jo-Anne LeFevre, psychologists with the Centre for Applied Cognitive Research at Canada’s Carleton University.
Indeed, they wrote, “the increased demands of decision-making and visual processing in hypertext impaired reading performance [especially when compared to print]. Many features of hypertext resulted in increased cognitive load and thus may have required working memory capacity that exceeded readers’ capabilities.”
Reach readers online.
So how do you write blog posts, Web pages, email messages, status updates and other copy that get the word out online?
- Get to the point faster: Don’t expect readers to read even the first paragraph to figure out where you’re going.
- Chunk it up: Break your message into more, shorter Web pages.
- Write tight: Use all of the tools you use to condense copy for print, but use them more aggressively online.
- Lift your ideas off the screen: Make your copy easy to scan with microcontent, or online display copy.
- Cut the fluff: Drop the adjectives, adverbs, hyperbole and other blah-blah.
- Make it friendly: Engage readers with a conversational, me-to-you voice, not an off-putting, stiff corporate style.
Reach readers in print.
And don’t overlook print as your medium of choice. Writing a thought piece on the state of the industry, the CEO’s vision for the future or the company’s five-year plan? Put it on paper.
Sorry, what was I saying?
Oh, yeah. The way the Web distracts and overtaxes your readers’ brains makes it no place for long, complex messages. So deliver ideas in print, nuggets of data online.
Reach readers online
Want to master the art of writing for the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions. Or find out about Ann’s next microcontent webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Web writing learning tools.
- Join the club: Find dozens of Web writing tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
“Make your language lyrical.”
Sam Horn, president of Action Seminars/Consulting
‘A spoonful of alliteration helps the medicine go down’
I’m a sucker for an alliterative list.
When a client asked me to write a piece on the 28 languages now available on her company’s technology, I wrote this lead:
“Whether you speak Chinese or Czech, Korean or Catalan, Finnish or French, Tetra radios speak your language.”
Got a list? Why not alliterate a little?
“A spoonful of alliteration helps the medicine go down,” write Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
It helps the listings go down, too.
Siddhartha Mukherjee uses this approach to communicate a list of side effects in The Emperor of All Maladies:
“The acute, short-term effects of nitrogen mustard — the respiratory complications, the burnt skin, the blisters, the blindness — were so amply monstrous that its long-term effects were overlooked.”
Help readers remember. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink writes that there are three reasons we’re moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age:
“Abundance, Asia, Automation”
Alliterating a short list like this serves as a mnemonic: It makes the list easier to remember, especially for listeners at TED conferences, where Pink is a frequent speaker.
“Alliterative words … give listeners’ and readers’ minds an auditory hook on which to hang a memory,” writes Sam Horn, president of Action Seminars/Consulting, “Alliterating the key words tickles our intellect and makes ideas easier to grasp and remember.”
Communicate range. Alliteration works for a range as well as a list.
In Innocent, Scott Turow writes:
“But even by the standards of somebody whose emotional temperature usually ranges from blah to blue, I’ve been in a bad way awaiting today.”
I alliterate both a range and a list in my bio:
“Ann’s workshops take her from Hollywood to Helsinki, helping communicators in organizations like NASA, Nike and Nokia polish their skills and find new inspiration for their work.”
Alliterate a list today. Have a long, random list to alliterate? Use The Alphabetizer to quickly sort your list into alphabetical order.
How can you use alliteration to make your language more lyrical?
Play with your words
Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to write creative copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Make Your Copy More Creative workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your creative writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching. And find out about Ann’s next creative writing webinar.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of tipsheets on playing with your words at RevUpReadership.com.
- Learn more: Get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
“It’s too bad for us ‘literary’ enthusiasts, but it’s the truth nevertheless — pictures tell any story more effectively than words.”
William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman
Words + pictures teach better
How can you help students remember the difference between affect and effect, all ready and already and among and between?
How about cartoons? In one study, students who received cartoons scored almost twice as high in understanding the differences as those who’d received written examples only.
For the study, researchers showed students at a large Midwestern university Web pages with lessons about confusing word pairs:
- Accept vs. Except
- Affect vs. Effect
- All ready vs. Already
- Among vs. Between
- Bring vs. Take
- Convince vs. Persuade
- Fewer vs. Less
- In vs. Into
- Infer vs. Imply
- Lay vs. Lie
- That vs. Which
Four types of information. Each page presented one word pair in one of four formats:
- Examples only. These pages included examples of the words in use. (“Dave was happy to accept yours. Dave loved all the birthday presents except yours.”)
- Examples and rules. In addition to the examples, these pages included rules for using the words. (“The word accept is used when communicating that something is taken. The word except is used when communicating that something is excluded.”)
- Examples and pictures. In addition to the examples, these pages included a cartoon of the example in action.
- Examples, rules and pictures. These pages included all of the information.
Cartoons teach best. After looking at the Web pages, the students took tests that assessed their:
- Understanding of the words (concept test)
- Ability to use the words in sentences (skill test)
On both tests, students who’d received the examples and cartoons outperformed the other groups — including those who’d received the pictures and rules:
- On the concept test, those who’d seen the pictures with the examples scored almost twice as high as the examples-only group (40% vs. nearly 80%).
- On the skills test, they did half again as well (about 45% vs. about 65%).
Are your messages getting through?
How could graphic storytelling help you communicate?
Sources: L. Brent Igo, Kenneth A. Kiewra and Roger Bruning, “Removing the Snare From the Pair: Using Pictures to Learn Confusing Word Pairs,” The Journal of Experimental Education, 2004, 72 (3), 165-178
Peter S. Houts, Cecilia C. Doak, Leonard G. Doak, Matthew J. Loscalzo, “The Role of Pictures in Improving Health Communication: A Review of Research on Attention, Comprehension, Recall, and Adherence” (PDF), Patient Education and Counseling, Vol. 61, 2006, pp.173-190
Communicate With Comics.
Ready to try graphic storytelling for your communications?
I’ve recently teamed up with Bill Wylie, former Marvel Comics illustrator, to help organizations tell their stories and sell their messages through graphic storytelling. Let me know if we can help you get your message across with a:
- Comic strip
- Comic story
- Comic book
- Graphic novel
Bill and I look forward to working with you to bring the power of words + pictures to your next campaign or communication.
“It was very educational and very resource filled. I believe that the information I learned will increase my ROI.”
Joel Benavide, Web and analytics specialist, CenterPoint Energy
Bring the lawyers to your writing workshop
I learn so much from my brilliant clients.
When CenterPoint Energy’s Eydie Pengelly brought me in for a writing workshop last month, it wasn’t just for the company’s communicators. Eydie invited her team’s clients and other reviewers to the sessions, too.
Among the benefits:
- Clients and communicators are on the same page about what makes a good story.
- Lawyers were able to clear up some misconceptions about what they feel comfortable about approving. Turns out communicators have more leeway than they thought.
- We had a great discussion about mitigating the risk of lawsuits against the risk of not being heard at all. Lawyers and communicators left feeling more like partners than adversaries.
My favorite outcome, though, was that one lawyer is considering a Chatter Monkey-esque blog for communicating legal and procurement guidelines to employees. Being hilarious is a brilliant approach for drawing attention to — forgive me — an often dry and finger-wagging topic.
Did you hear me say that the lawyers are planning to do this? I couldn’t be happier if I found out that the IT folks were creating technical manuals inspired by The Oatmeal.
The thing that really surprises me is that in 18 years of presenting in-house writing workshops, this is the first time I’ve been invited to teach writing techniques to reviewers as well as writers. Why not invite your clients, lawyers and other reviewers to a writing workshop this year? Contact me to schedule a seminar.
“Best business writing seminar I’ve attended. I have a master’s in technical writing and this was some of the most useful, practical content I’ve seen.”
Diane Alexander, communications associate, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Bismark, N.D., on April 27. Write for the Web, Think Like a Reporter, and Not Your Father’s News Release, a one-day workshop for the North Dakota Professional Communicators
- Boston on June 22. Writing That Sells, a one-day workshop for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
- Chicago on March 23. Web Writing Boot Camp, a one-day workshop for PRSA
- Houston on March 8. Best Practices in Healthcare Writing, a keynote session for Ragan’s Healthcare Communicator’s Conference
- Nashville, Tenn., on May 3. Writing for the Web, a half-day workshop for the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA)
- Raleigh-Durham, N.C., on March 13. Catch Your Reader, a one-day workshop for IABC/NC Triangle
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Austin, Texas: April 19-20
- Bismark, N.D.: April 27
- Boston: June 22, Aug. 7
- Chicago: March 23, April 17
- Houston: March 8
- Memphis, Tenn.: Feb. 21-23
- Nashville, Tenn.: May 3
- Raleigh-Durham, N.C.: March 13
- St. Louis: Jan. 25
Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Writing and editing magazine, brochure and newsletter copy for Saint Luke’s Health System and Mediware
- Presenting writing workshops for the State Fund of California, CenterPoint Energy, Geisinger Health System, LeasePlan USA
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via:
- ComPRehension, PRSA’s blog of public relations strategies and tactics
- Wylie Communications feed, click RSS
- Wylie’s Writing Tips