To say that I dread winter is putting it mildly. In Minnesota, winter means beginning and ending my workday in darkness, enduring longer commutes, and sloshing through slush that leaves floors slippery or soggy. This year, however, winter supplied me with a gift: two new tools for revising my writing.
Like many writers, I’m a verbal learner. I prefer to process information through words, especially written text. My primary learning style, however, is visual. I learn best when I see or can envision an idea, and I communicate through metaphor, simile, or words that “draw” pictures in my reader’s/listener’s mind. These style preferences mean that, until recently, I relied on written text for every part of the writing process, from brainstorming to proofreading.
Written Text Isn’t the Be-All, End-All
I tell the college students I teach that the best way to edit their writing is to read it aloud. That’s true, and I follow my own advice, but it doesn’t work for big writing projects like it does for small ones. While working on my first book-length project, I’ve discovered that by the time I’m well into revising and editing, I know each passage’s backstory (how it appeared originally, how many times I’ve changed it and why, how it leads into the next passage) too well to assess it effectively. Familiarity causes me to read aloud what I intend the passage to say instead of what it actually says. Without realizing it, I read aloud prepositions and articles that aren’t on the page. And grammar is the least of my problems.
My discovery of a new writing tool began with listening to audiobooks in my car. I didn’t appreciate the extent to which a reader could shape how the text was perceived until I experienced it. For example, I stopped listening to a few potentially interesting books because I couldn’t get past the author’s reedy voice or flat delivery. Conversely, I finished a novel whose plot and characters I didn’t like because a professional actor’s voice and inflection made sentences that were already lovely even more compelling.
I don’t want an actor’s (or my own) reading to polish my writing while I’m revising and editing, so I tried Microsoft Word’s Read Aloud feature. (You’ll find it under the Review menu in most versions of Word.) Something about the computer’s lack of inflection makes problems I didn’t know existed leap off the page. Some of those problems include:
- Potholes. This is my term for missing or inadequate transitions between ideas—places where the smooth pavement of ideas I’m traversing drops from beneath my feet. (See? Visual learner.) I feel a thud and find myself thinking, “Huh?” If I have that reaction, my readers will, too.
- Ambiguous Sentences. A phrase I thought was crystal clear suddenly has an alternate interpretation.
- Errors. Mistakes I read past dozens of times without noticing include everything from typos to repeated explanations to passages placed in the wrong spot.
- Awkward Rhythms. Sentence clunkers stand out like wrong notes in a familiar song because the computer doesn’t intuit how they’re supposed to sound.
The feature’s pause button allows for quick fixes without losing my spot in the text, which is especially important when I pair this tool with the second one I discovered.
I like to walk and run outdoors. Aside from exercise and stress-reduction, these activities spur brainstorming and problem-solving. A walk or run always shakes loose ideas when I’m stuck, but I’m not as hearty as runners I see on the street, bundled so that only their eyes show. I’m limited to treadmills, which bring an added challenge: boredom. The less actively my brain is engaged, the more likely I’ll hit the “stop” button before I reach my goal. Watching Netflix helps, but nothing makes my workout go faster than revising and editing my book. Interval sprints (running and walking) are perfect for pausing Word’s Read Aloud feature to make corrections.
Exercising, listening, and editing at the same time ignites magical mind-body connections. I’ve come up with ideas on the treadmill that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Exercising while listening prevents me from rushing the editing process, too. I can only edit as fast as the computer reads. Besides, I’m ticking two things off my list at once, so I feel less pressured by time constraints.
I can’t say that these new tools make me a fan of winter, but they definitely offer a bright spot amidst the season’s dredges.