Monday, July 26, 2010

The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 5: Vigor

To be or not to be: that is the question. – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

I begin this final post on the virtues of reading aloud with the first line of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy to refute those rhetoricians who claim that use of the verb to be lacks clarity, conciseness, grace, and vigor. Hamlet is equating his decision to act or not to act with whether he chooses to exist or not exist. Clear, concise, graceful, and powerful it is—no doubt about it.

But these rhetoricians have a point. Too often, we use the verb to be when a more powerful verb would serve the situation better. Here are two examples of sentences lacking vigor because of an overabundance of to be:

The point is that the president is not being amenable to being on the committee.

There are times when it is necessary for being assertive about what it is you are saying.

Once again, reading aloud would have picked up the dreadfully weak style of those sentences. A straightforward approach to editing would eliminate all to be verbs from each sentence (four in the first and five in the second):

The president does not want to serve on the committee.

Sometimes you need to speak assertively.

Read your sentences aloud to promote powerful, fluent writing!

Books by Philip Vassallo

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 4: Grace

When I talk about earning grace, I’m not making any biblical allusion, but I am referring to a writing attribute that most people find difficult attaining in their first draft. Professor Joseph M. Williams uses the word grace in the subtitle of his book Style, which I reviewed in an earlier WORDS ON THE LINE post. First-draft thinking often looks like this:

A worst-case scenario, which we would want to avoid to ensure that we meet the deadline since our proposal will not be accepted after the due date, would require that the manager to whom we assigned the project work overtime.

The awkwardness in this sentence comes from at least three problems:

  • The 24-word distance between the subject worst-case scenario and verb would require. I have said a few times in this blog and in my book The Art of E-mail Writing that readers need to connect subjects and verbs closely.
  • The circular, repetitive thinking behind to ensure that we meet the deadline since our proposal will not be accepted after the due date.
  • The awkwardness of to whom, which we should avoid whenever possible.

Reading aloud would have detected these issues and prompted a rewrite like the one below:

A worst-case scenario would require the assigned project manager to work overtime, but falling behind schedule would jeopardize submitting our proposal by the due date.

Read your sentences aloud to create a graceful style.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 3: Conciseness

If you’ve been e-mailing at work for a while, then you’ve surely seen writing like this:

I am writing to tell you that I spoke to Paula during the Quality Assurance meeting that we held today, and she told me to tell you that starting at this point and going forward we will be going with Plan B.

Only 12 of those 42 words have any value for the reader. Think about it:

  • The first three words, I am writing, are unnecessary for a person reading in this context.
  • The next four words, to tell you that, are just as useless.
  • The next four words, I spoke to Paula, are equally unneeded once the writer says what Paula said.
  • The clause she told me to tell you is repetitive.
  • The seven words starting at this point and going forward are a bit much for starting now.

If the writer had read aloud that sentence, he would have picked up at least some of these issues and gotten to the important point. The 12-word version below says it all:

During today’s Quality Assurance meeting, Paula said to start using Plan B.

Read your sentences aloud to hear the repeated and unnecessary words!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 2: Clarity

Get a load of this sentence:

If the room is locked at any time outside of usual business hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, closed on Sunday), you can call Security at extension 711, or Housekeeping Services can be called during business hours if Security is busy.

Twisted phrasing, useless words, and weak organization occur everywhere in this sentence. Reading the sentence aloud would help you pick up the following six clarity problems:

  • Wasted words – The words at any time, of, usual, closed on Sunday, you can, are unnecessary.
  • Long parenthetical passage – The listing of the business hours interrupts the primary thought, which is whom to call if you find the door locked.
  • Formatting of business hours – Those varied business hours need to be listed vertically for easy reference, not horizontally, which causes muddled thinking.
  • Confusing mix of active and passive voice – Shifting between passive and active voice is not always a bad idea, but in this case breaking from you can call to can be called is arbitrary, puzzling, and awkward.
  • Nonparallel organization of ideas – The organization of ideas is inconsistent and unclear. Starting with the condition if the room is locked, the sentence moves to that clunky definition of the business hours, to the contingency you can call. But then the second situation is reversed, from the contingency, call Housekeeping, to the condition, if Security is busy.
  • Incomplete idea – The idea if Security is busy means if you get a busy signal when calling Security. As written, readers might think the clause means to call Housekeeping if Security answers the call by saying, “We are busy right now.”

A read-aloud of that sentence followed by a simple reinterpretation of the sentence might have led to this improved second draft:

If the room is locked before or after business hours, call Security at X 711. If you get a busy signal from Security during business hours, call Housekeeping at X 739. Our business hours are as follows:

  • 8 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
  • 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday
  • 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Remember: Read your sentences aloud to remedy unclear thinking!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 1

You don’t have to be a grammar expert to be a good writer; in fact, grammar experts can make the worst writers. Good writing requires clarity, conciseness, grace, and vigor. Most people capable of speaking with clarity, conciseness, grace, and vigor can also write with these attributes. (I say “most people” because those with certain learning disabilities or insufficient education in basic literacy might be excluded from this vast majority of the population who are capable of good writing.)

The number one tip for good writing has nothing to do with knowing a noun from a verb, or understanding run-on sentences and sentence fragments, or distinguishing a comma from a semicolon. It is what I have said in all my books and courses on writing:

Read your document aloud to hear how it sounds. If you stumble over your words, or feel you’re rambling, or get to the end of the sentence and forgot what you wrote at
its beginning, then fix the sentence by saying what you wrote as if your readers
were standing in front of you. Then simply copy what you’ve said.

If we apply our natural fluency with language, we could fix most of our mangled prose without any help—or, at least, without any help after a brief instructional period. Reading those sentences that we wrote in haste will aid us in detecting ambiguity, repetition, awkwardness, and lifelessness. The practice will make us change sentences like:

There are times that circumstances dictate when people have to act forthrightly
and boldly, you have to stand up for yourself, honestly, to fight against all
kinds of oppression.


People sometimes encounter situations that demand bold action against

I’ll be looking at the four benefits of reading drafts aloud—clarity, conciseness, grace, and vigor—one at a time in the next four posts of WORDS ON THE LINE.