The best writing tip ever: Read stories aloud prior to publication

Bart Pfankuch

Oct 1, 2020

Writing a great news article takes thought, concentration and a basis of solid reporting.

Some articles flow from the fingertips like a flood, gushing forth in a logical manner, flowing at a proper pace with clear meaning. Others require a struggle that can seem insurmountable.

Either way, deadlines demand that stories get written, edited and published, regardless of the effort made or stress endured.

But how do we know when they are ready, if they are effective, if readers will get what we’re trying to say, and if the rare tier of top-notch newswriting has been reached?

The best test is perhaps the simplest, easiest, most natural thing writers and editors can do to check their work for flow, accuracy, clarity and meaning: Read the article aloud before submitting it for an edit or for publication.

Reading text aloud performs two basic yet critical analytical and diagnostic functions — it quickly shows if the prose is smooth, flows well, is pleasing to the eye and ear, and where the clunks in copy are located; also, it reveals whether information is being presented in a logical, clear and meaningful progression.

News stories don’t have to be poetic, but it sure helps the reader’s enjoyment and increases the likelihood they will read to completion if the cadence of the copy flows along nicely, has sensible pacing and simply sounds good to the ear.

Meanwhile, writers and editors have great freedom to position facts, figures and quotations as they see fit in any article, and there will always be subjectivity. Yet it should be a goal — one worth laboring over — to present information in a logical, thoughtful manner that provides the reader the clearest, most sensible and complete picture of what an article is about and why it matters.

Go on any news website or pick up any newspaper today and read a few articles out loud. It will become immediately clear which writers and editors took the time to polish and parse over stories before publication. Articles that are difficult to read aloud were probably written and edited in haste; those that flow smoothly and sound pleasing to the ear were likely crafted with greater care and a greater time commitment.

Here are a few ways to use reading aloud to sharpen your copy and heighten the meaning of your work.

• Actually read the copy out loud, not just in your head bubble. It will become obvious when you come across a clunker or a “stopper” in the text that is simply hard to read. Those are poor constructions or misplaced facts that need immediate fixing, either by recasting a sentence, breaking one sentence into two, or repositioning a phrase or adjective or adverb.

• Writers and editors have the blissful opportunity in each story to use all the techniques and tricks of the trade they have learned over the years. Our “writer’s toolbox” includes all the rules and all the broken rules, virtually any technique you want to try; they all can be effective when used at the right time in the right place. Reading aloud will quickly reveal if a new idea or technique is working or if it needs to be put on the shelf in favor of a traditional method with a proven track record.

• The eternal subjective question in all news articles is, “What comes first, and what comes next?” Reading aloud will show whether you have this right, or as good as it can be. The time it takes to read the copy out loud will give your brain the seconds it needs to realize that facts are out of order or have been left out. When those flags of confusion get raised, make notes in the copy to remind yourself to add or change the position of any fact, detail or piece of information that seems to be missing or misplaced.

• Reading aloud will improve your use of quotes, identifiers and tag lines, figures, data points, descriptive details, action, humor, emotion and emphasis by revealing if they are correctly positioned in the copy. If they feel hidden, out of place or clunky, a rework is needed.

• To heighten the power of reading aloud, call someone on the phone and read the text aloud to them. Then ask them if they understood everything, and if it not, it’s back to rewriting and editing.

• Reading aloud will reinforce the time-honored concept that the best sentence structure is S-V-O (subject, verb, object). It reveals if compound verbs or subjects have been improperly split. It highlights poor word usage or style problems. It uncovers wordiness and clunkiness. It identifies poor pacing. It can show whether the vibe is off. It can show if bias has crept in.

• Reading aloud allows a writer or editor to reach the top echelon of great stories — those that are clear, factual and which make sense — and the best that are both accurate and complete but also pleasant for readers to read.

• Know this fact and remember it: if you can’t read the story aloud well, then readers can’t read it well on the page, and it simply is not ready for publication.

Bart Pfankuch is the content director for South Dakota News Watch, an online public-service journalism group. He can be reached at