by Jennifer Rojas, Student Consultant, University Writing Center
If you have ever come in to the University Writing Center for a session with a tutor, your tutor probably read your draft out loud. Reading out loud makes it is easier to hear when a line is awkward to say or where a word needs to be changed. It changes the usual circumstances of reading a paper. Your tutor may have even suggested that you try this practice at home when you are attempting to revise on your own. If you remember what you hear better than what you read, this may be especially helpful. It is something I do myself.
You can use this practice of reading out loud to help you with other steps of the writing process as well. When trying to read and understand the assignment and source materials, reading out loud is a practice that can help you to decipher dense and sometimes confusing texts. Different types of text will require slightly different approaches to reading out loud. However, before we get into specifics, I would like to go over some brief advice on reading punctuation out loud.
In general, punctuation such as colons, semi-colons, dashes, commas, and parenthesizes will all be indicated by short pauses when you see them in the text. When commas are used in a list, you will want to read that list in a rhythmic pattern that matches the words. For a period, you will pause slightly longer. I suggest that you practice reading a few sentences out loud and listening to how you read. Pay special attention to how you read punctuation out loud. Quick side note, this does not mean to use commas in writing wherever you would normally breathe. That method results in lots of unnecessary commas.
When reading a large portion of historical writings or plays, remember that they were intended to be performed or read aloud. Homer’s epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, were not written down for several centuries after they were composed. Reading the texts out loud allows you to interact with the stories in the way the original listeners did. This works well with plays, too. In fact, if you are struggling with understanding a play, it can benefit you to listen to an audiobook or radio performance of the play. Hearing the lines in different voices and with the right tone while simultaneously viewing the text of the play can help you to understand the interactions between the characters.
Poetry is a little different from plays and stories. While some poems can be found in an audio version, many cannot. Poetry is very similar to music, in that most poems will have a distinct rhythm and cadence to the words. You may need to try reading the poem out loud a few times with a different rhythm or emphasis until it makes sense. You will probably need to read it repeatedly. If you find that you are struggling with reading poetry out loud, search for some spoken word artists to see how it is done. Sarah Kay’s “If I Should Have a Daughter” is one of my favorites.
If you are reading a textbook, article, reference book, or other source material, it may be particularly dense and filled with vocabulary from a specific discipline. I recommend working through a text like this in parts. Before reading it out loud, make sure you understand any unusual vocabulary. Then work your way through the text in small portions. Break the text down into sections can make it easier to comprehend.
I urge you not to give up trying to discover a strategy that works for you. If reading out loud doesn’t work at first, try it again with another type of reading. Or you can come back to the particular piece of writing again at a different time, but don’t give up.