If you ask me, one of the most useful strategies for editing your academic work is the simple act of reading it out and listening to the way it sounds. I do it when drafting my writing, and I recommend it to students all the time. This little anecdote, which builds upon previous posts on this blog, describes why.
I discovered this technique when I was preparing an essay for an academic conference. I knew it was probably too long, but I wasn’t really interested in editing it any more. I thought it was basically finished, so I wanted to practice reading it aloud in order to develop my presentational skills and make sure I wouldn’t go over my allotted time.
What happened when I read the paper aloud really surprised me: there were all sorts of things wrong with it that I simply had not perceived when I had been writing it on the screen. I noticed loads of small punctuation errors, occasional typos, and small but important referencing details that I needed to check. I realised that some of my paragraphs were over a page long. I discovered that if a sentence has a massive subordinate clause in it (or maybe an unnecessarily long bracketed sentence, which adds very little to the meaning of the sentence), or if it features three semicolons, then it is very hard to read it aloud in a way that feels natural and clear. Reading aloud is great for identifying overlong sentences – if you’re running out of breath, you should probably stop!
Further, on a level deeper than presentational detail, there were some fundamental decisions about the structure of my argument that I needed to change. Two long paragraphs in my theoretical section, for example, were doing basically the same thing. When I had been typing them up, I was convinced that I was making lots of different, nuanced, and interesting points. But the act of saying all of these things aloud made me realise that for a lot of it I was simply repeating myself.
There was also something about reading for an audience that was particularly helpful. The conference audience were only ever going to encounter my paper once, and they were not going to have the luxury of going back over it in order to check whether they had understood (and if I wasn’t clear, they probably wouldn’t care). If they were going to follow my paper, I had to be really clear about what I was saying, why I was using certain bits of theory to help me say it, and how each example and piece of critical material helped me get my point across. If, when I read one of my own sentences, I thought, “why am I saying this?”, then I could be pretty sure that someone in the audience would think, “why is this guy saying this?” That imaginary audience member needs their questions answered.
Reading drafts aloud can help anyone who wants to improve their academic work. It helps you notice things to improve, it helps you gain some objectivity on your work, and it helps you develop a clear and readable style. It doesn’t matter if you’re not going to a conference – undergraduates can benefit from this simple technique just as much as can doctoral students. Get reading!
Posted by Alex