Your brain is a cheat and a liar

Every writer knows you should read your work out loud, and traditionally this is what I have done. Hours upon hours of my droning voice reading short stories and articles, correspondence and novels, trying to hear how it sounds and find mistakes along the way.

However, it turns out your brain is both a cheat and liar – it sees what it wants to see – so it will happily skip over typos and omissions in your work, telling your mouth to read it anyway because that’s what you want to hear.

Your brain is that friend who flatters you insincerely: no your adverbs don’t look big in that sentence. It autocorrects your clangers so you aren’t embarrassed by your own stupidity.

It’s only recently I have discovered the wonder of the Read Aloud function in MS Word, but it’s pretty much changed my (writing) life.

When you choose ReadAloud, you’re choosing an ally who reads only what is there  ̶  the typos, the bad grammar, the repeated words and the over-dependence on certain phrases. It doesn’t seek to flatter or reassure. It is a true friend – the one who tells you there is a huge piece of spinach in your teeth, which has probably been there since breakfast.

My book 100 Days of March has gone through multiple drafts. I have stared at its pages for over a year. I felt confident enough to send it to a publisher, but when I recently opened it back up and turned on Read Aloud, I was mortified by the sheer number of errors peppering my novel. Errors I could not see, but I could hear when someone else read them to me.

For example:

To my mind this paragraph looked fine, but when it was read out loud, it became clear just how many times I had used ‘her’ and ‘she’ in the same sentence. Not to mention the missing word. I needed to completely rewrite it.

It seems obvious now, but until this was read out loud, my brain didn’t register the double use of ‘care.’ 

I must have read this paragraph a dozen or more times over the past year, but it was only when I used readaloud that I realised I had used the wrong name halfway through.

Sometimes your brain doesn’t see an error because in a different context it wouldn’t actually be an error. In this example I use the wrong tense, it should be made instead of make.

I couldn’t see this tiny typo until it was read to me

Even when writing this blog I still couldn’t see what the error in this section was and had to go back to my full manuscript to find the difference. I could not see the absence of the word ‘to’ but when it was read to me, I could hear it clear as can be.

Another example of the brain seeing what it wants to see. Two words are inverted but I didn’t realise until it was read aloud.

It’s possible readers of this blog saw all the errors immediately, they probably jumped out of the page and body slammed you. But to me, these and many more like them had become invisible. It took about a week to have the computer read my entire book to me, but in that time it alerted me to a range of errors:

  • Typos (I had written modestly, but it should have been modesty)
  • Repeating the same word, phrase or concept in adjoining sentences/paragraphs
  • Where a word is omitted or in the wrong order
  • Lack of commas or too many commas (the voice pauses at a comma)
  • An over-dependency on certain mannerisms. For example my characters kept shrugging and rolling their eyes. Once the voice had alerted me to the repetition, I did a search to count how many times I used them throughout the text, and replaced them with alternate mannerisms where appropriate.

You can find Read Aloud in the ‘Review’ tab of MS Word. You can choose between voices (my old Word version has posh Catherine or even posher James, but I think newer versions have more options). You also need to be prepared for the occasional massacre of words and names. For example, Posh Catherine would pronounce Saoirse (which should be see-sha) as ‘sour-arse’. Go on – try it!

You can vary the speech at which the voice talks, but apart from a sweet spot in the middle, the two extremes are both utterly ridiculous and were probably just included as a horrible joke.

I doubt I will ever send a piece of work out again without first having Posh Catherine (not her real name) read my work to me.

Luckily I practice what I preach, or else I would have hit ‘publish on this.

Published by Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a Perth-based writer and storyteller

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