Having Trouble Evaluating Your Prose Style? Try Writing for the Ear

Revising one’s own work is difficult. We are so accustomed to our own writerly Style, Tone, and Voice and so immersed in our own prose that we often struggle to consider it critically. Creating distance by taking a few days off between finishing a draft and reviewing it certainly helps as does working with a consultant at the Writing Center. But, if you are revising by yourself, we suggest you consider your prose through fresh eyes by reading it out loud in this exercise we call “Writing for the Ear.”

The exercise offers several benefits to the revision process. By listening to your work rather than silently reading it, you are using a different mechanism — ears rather than eyes — to comprehend. Your eyes are accustomed to reading your work and will start to overlook awkward and vague phrasing. In contrast, your ears are unaccustomed to hearing your work and therefore act like an outside reader. The result is that your ear will pick up syntactical errors, monotonous phrasing, and run-on sentences that your eyes have missed. In short, you become your own audience.

When you have a section or even just a few paragraphs in need of revision, try the following:

Step 1: Find a place where you will not bother anyone by talking to yourself quietly. Start reading from anywhere, and read slowly and deliberately.

Step 2: Listen for moments when your voice stumbles and pauses. When your voice stumbles and pauses, circle the phrasing—stumbling and pausing indicates that there is awkwardness in your prose.

Step 3: Indicate sentences and phrases that feel unmanageable to say. Most likely, that feeling is indicating that the phrase or sentence is too long. Also, listen to your breath. Do you feel breathless after reading a sentence? Did you have to pause midway through a sentence to take a breath? These moments indicate that the sentence you are reading is too long.

Step 4: As you read aloud, be sure to check in with yourself, frequently asking questions like: “Does that make sense?” “Can I say this more efficiently and elegantly?” You can even try revising your prose by talking it out rather than writing it.

Step 5: Finally, pay attention to your voice — do you hear your voice droning? Do you feel bored? Does it sound like every sentence lasts the same amount of time? If so, consider varying the length and construction of your sentences. For example, if your paragraph is full of long sentences, readers will become quickly exhausted. Insert some short sentences in there to wake them up. Likewise, if your work is full of short sentences, readers will feel bored. In general, short sentences are great when you want to make a strong statement and long sentences are useful when you are explaining a bit of tricky analysis or defining a term. For helpful examples, consider “This sentence has five words” as well as our own resource on ventilation, “Does Your Writing Feel Unvaried? Principles for Mixing Things Up.”

Reading your work out loud is particularly helpful if you are writing against a deadline. It reduces the amount of time you have to wait between finishing a draft and revising it. “Writing for the Ear” is also helpful when you are writing grant and fellowship applications, as these genres generally require a specific voice and style. Your ear will pick up on deviations more than your eyes.

Further, check out these entries on the use-value of becoming your own audience: Having Trouble Evaluating Your Prose Style? Try Writing for the Ear,” and “Is Your Prose Murky and Full of Jargon? Try This Writing Exercise: “What I Really Mean Is…”