R is for read aloud. Hearing the sound of your words from your lips is a simple trick to improve writing says Elen Lewis.
Here’s a simple trick that will immediately improve your writing. Read the words aloud to yourself. It’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences work well. I like the way crime writer PD James explains it. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
If you stumble as you read, the construction of the sentence is probably wrong. If you run out of breath, the sentence is too long. If it sounds too staccato, you may need longer phrases. If it doesn’t sound right to your ear, then something is wrong with the flow. You may need to mix up short and long sentences to get the rhythm right. If you trail off at the end of your sentences or start speeding up, you might be getting bored.
This is what you should do.
- Put the writing aside, leave it for as long as you can. A cup of tea, an afternoon, a day, a week…
- Read the words pretending you’ve never read them before. Don’t read from your computer screen. Print it out.
- Challenge every word. Is this the best word to use? Is the writing better without it?
- Cut until you can cut no more. Every word counts. This will spring the writing to life.
- Challenge every sentence. Does it have rhythm? Is there magic in it?
- Challenge every paragraph? Pretend it’s flatpack furniture. Did you assemble it correctly? What happens if you put the second sentence first?
Rigorous editing can craft the plainest words into something of beauty. Brilliant writers tend to be brilliant editors. Or they’re lucky enough to have one. David Ogilvy said, “I’m a lousy copywriter but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client.”
Do you have a business writing conundrum you’d like Elen to address in her next column? Queries on question marks, questions of style, problems with punctuation? Let her know Elen.Lewis@gmail.com