A Writing Tool You May Not Be Using (Yet). Hint: It Involves Robots.

It can be difficult to find the weaknesses or errors in one’s own writing. We read over missing words because our brains know they should be there. We write mind-bogglingly long sentences, those great structures built of words, nesting clause within clause within clause, little knowing how someone who is coming at it fresh, who hasn’t seen the blueprint, will work it all out and tease the correct meaning from our tangled strings of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. One important way to get feedback is to pass our work along to willing readers who will be encouraging and yet honest, and who also hopefully know a thing or two about plotting, pacing, and prepositional phrases.

But before passing your tender, raw writing on to another human being, perhaps you should be trying robots first.

One of the best ways to really hear your writing for what it is is to make use of the increasingly sophisticated text-to-speech capabilities of your word processor, your e-reader, or various programs you can download. My preferred method is something called NaturalReader. You can download a free version here, but I recommend buying a few voices (I use Crystal) that sound less like robots and more like…um, let’s say cyborgs. Simply cut and paste any text into the program and you can listen to it, either via your computer speakers or converted to an mp3 file that you can listen to on your iPod.

I probably listen to close to a hundred book-length manuscripts using this software every year for work. I do my work reading this way for convenience and as a time-saver. Listening to a manuscript rather than reading from a page, I hear things that I wouldn’t necessarily always notice (which I might then decide to pass on to the editor if it becomes too distracting). Irritating repetition of a word, phrase, or way of describing something (such as “Her heart fell along with her valise”), sometimes a mere paragraph away.  Missing helping verbs or spots where an author changed the sentence structure at some point but missed the removal of a now superfluous word. Overuse of a description, as though the author had forgotten that the “lawman” had already been described as “blonde” many, many times in the book (as though the color of his hair somehow had anything to do with his professional competency).

And everything I pick up in others’ manuscripts I can pick up in my own using the same technology. Hearing your work read aloud, even by a slightly robotic voice, brings into sharp relief those little mistakes and irritations that you want to fix before you send your work away to another human being. It makes you notice when you need another paragraph of transition. It shows you that you forgot an article or changed tense or forgot to pluralize something. It shows you misspellings you already read over ten times without noticing.

If this tool isn’t in your toolbox yet, I strongly encourage you to add it. It’s free or cheap, it can save you small embarrassments, and it can make you a more efficient self-editor.

Plus, there’s just something about hearing a robot read your story that is bizarrely satisfying.

4 thoughts on “A Writing Tool You May Not Be Using (Yet). Hint: It Involves Robots.

  1. Back when the PC was still monochrome, my brother and I had hours of fun with a program called Dr. Sbaitso. It was a program that used a robot voice to ask you questions as though it were a psychologist, king of like an early version of Cleverbot (Google it if you’ve never heard of it). Anyway, one of the things you could do was make it say things with the command “say: hello” and it would say “hello” in a robot voice. I’m afraid you’ve just re-awakend my long dormant urge to make a robot say things that I think are going to be funny. Way to go, Erin! How am I supposed to get any real writing done now?

  2. I can’t agree enough that reading your work out loud, or recording it and listening to the playback, is an incredible editing tool for those of us (and by “us” I mean “me”) who craft really torturous, convoluted sentences. It’s important to experience your writing through your ears, and not just through your eyes.

    So big thumbs up on this tip.

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