Flowing text helps readers focus on the narrative rather than the reading
As we start getting a few paragraphs into a block of text, we typically stop reading individual words and instead transition to simply scanning over the text. Clearly written text, with an engaging narrative, helps the reader maintain forward progress from this point forward. But what does clearly written mean? To me this is text that the reader can move through without necessarily realising that they are reading. Clunky text or discontinuous ideas (e.g. a lack of transition between sentences or paragraphs) break the flow of reading, thereby bringing the act of reading back to the reader’s consciousness. While achieving flowing text is a high bar to set in terms of writing, the first step is in identifying areas in the manuscript where focus is being lost.
Maintaining a clear narrative also requires text to work together across different scales. This includes ensuring that appropriate words or terms are used (and used consistently), that the sentence structure is clear, that there are direct transitions between sentences, that there is a logical construction to each paragraph and section, and that there are easy transitions between paragraphs and sections. These are all distinct aims that editing needs to address, while remembering that these should be clear to a reader, and not only to ourselves.
Maintaining focus while editing is hard!
As with readers, writers also lose focus while editing text. Just like our readers, we can fall into the habit of skimming over our own writing without thinking about what we’re trying to edit. This often coincides with sections where the sentences themselves are difficult to parse, and where readers will get stuck (and therefore lose focus). Identifying these sections is critical because while an author that is familiar with the work might have the impression that information is being sufficiently conveyed, a naïve reader might not get anything from it. But how do we overcome the conundrum of losing attention as an editor in the places that most require editing? Overcoming this problem is particularly important because it is very demotivating to feel like we’re spending a lot of time and effort on a manuscript while the feedback we receive from other readers is that they aren’t seeing any improvements. Further, the tendency to start skimming as an editor causes writers to not give sufficient attention to some potentially really important parts of the manuscript (e.g. the third and fourth paragraphs of the introduction, the methods) where readers require the most clarity.
Read aloud when editing
In my experience, far and away the best way of improving the writing in manuscripts is to read through the text out loud. The process of turning the words from thoughts into spoken phrases stops us from mindlessly scanning text, meaning that a writer can better focus on individual words. This is because the extra step that has to take place between reading consecutive words slows down the reading speed, and forces each word to be parsed individually. In doing so, it makes poor writing much more obvious, and immediately stands out, because our minds don’t have the time to make sense of a jumble of words in the same way that they can when reading internally.
When reading manuscripts aloud it often helps to try focus on different aspects of the writing. Each read should have one focus, be it working on the words in a sentence, the sentence structure, the transitions between sentences, and so on. Below I suggest how to use several “read-alouds”, each with a different focus, to go through the process of editing text. Most often this comes after having written a complete first draft, but I have also had good success in writing while speaking aloud.
Reading aloud allows greater focus on individual words
One good example where reading aloud can make poor writing immediately obvious is in the inconsistent use of terms. When reading internally our minds seem to quite readily link synonyms, especially when we are very familiar with the work. It then becomes very common for manuscripts to use a range of terms to mean the same thing, and sometimes use the same terms to mean different things. One of my earliest PhD papers suffered immensely from my inconsistent use of feeder, patch, and site (I had sites that contained multiple feeders, but used patches to sometimes refer to individual feeders and sometimes to the different sites). Reading aloud really helps to identify such inconsistencies because of it makes it much more obvious when the wrong word is being used as it is being spoken out loud. In almost all manuscripts I have found many cases of inconsistent or sloppy use of important terms, and picked them up in this way.
Read aloud to identify poor sentences
Reading aloud is also a very good way of identifying clunky sentences, and those that go on (and on (and on…)). Often the first read-through should focus heavily on word choice and sentence construction because it’s difficult to get into the flow of the text if you can’t get through a single sentence. So, initially, don’t worry too much about where things are, just try to write each sentence so that you can speak it easily. If you can speak through the sentence smoothly, there’s a very good chance that the reader will also get through it easily as well. One thing to note (with editing in general) is that after having edited each sentence, it is critical to go back over it to make sure that the edits haven’t altered the sentence’s meaning (this can happen surprisingly often). Having clear sentences will help with the next step: bringing them together to form cohesive paragraphs.
Read aloud to focus on paragraph construction
Once the sentences themselves read (reasonably) well, it’s time to start thinking about the flow between sentences, and the overall construction of each paragraph. Does each sentence logically flow into the next? Do all the sentences build up to one main message? Are there any unnecessary additions to the paragraph that could be removed without losing clarity, or that would improve your delivery of the paragraph’s key points? At this point, focus on each paragraph one by one. I find that it always helps to take a deep breath, even to stand up and stretch a bit, between each paragraph. This helps me to keep fresh eyes as I tackle each one, and also prevents being distracted by other bits of the manuscript. For this, and the previous, read it’s also useful to sometimes read paragraphs in a different order so that you give those middle paragraphs a chance to shine.
Read aloud to focus on transitions between paragraphs
Once the sentences and paragraphs are in good shape, it comes time to focus on the transitions between paragraphs. Again, reading aloud (this time in order) really helps to ensure that you maintain focus on the topic at hand. In this read, allow yourself to flow through the centre of each paragraph, and focus on emphasising the first and last sentences. Try to read the text with a bit of drama—the first sentence should excite the reader to keep reading while final sentence of a paragraph should set up a (little) cliff-hanger leaving them wanting to move on to find out what comes next. The final sentences of paragraphs are where a good writer builds the development of ideas in the reader’s mind, while the opening sentences provide answers (and, in doing so, set the scope of the paragraph). In between these sentences we provide the justification or evidence to support them.
Reading aloud makes you a better writer
Almost every bit of advice or course about writing good scientific papers highlight the importance of the narrative. Scientific papers, like any other story, have a start, a middle, and an end. In our case, we provide the background (introduction), the evidence (methods and results), and the interpretation (discussion and conclusion). Communicating each of these sections is at the heart of good scientific writing. I’ve found that reading my papers aloud as I edit them has been the single most important contribution to my writing development. Reviewing papers for journals has helped me better understand how poor overall presentation (e.g. bad structuring) can so easily turn great research into unappealing Science, and highlighted many common mistakes that writers make, but reading my own writing out loud is what I think has most helped me with achieving good narratives. These days, I go through several ”read-alouds” of all the papers we produce in my lab, and I usually do this together with those who’ve written the paper. In the next instalment, I’ll highlight how reading together with others can take your manuscripts to a new level.