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January 10, 2012

1 Way to Improve Your Writing Skills


I am not an English professor nor am I a linguist or an expert on writing. However, what I am is an IT expert and while writing my first novel, I resorted to technology to help me write better prose. Perhaps this approach could help you as well.

One major hurdle that many Indie authors, such as me, face is the lack of professional editorial help when it comes to writing non-business related material. For business related writing there are a lot of automated tools that do a wonderful job. However, not so much for fictional writing and this makes perfect sense, since there are elements of personal style which cannot be easily automated; at least not just yet.

What I discovered for myself is not new, to be sure. It’s only the approach that might be somewhat novel. I have done quite a few Google searches and couldn’t come up with anything which says that other people are using this method; albeit, I suspect other authors are indeed using it.

Although writing is mostly a visual process, in my opinion, good prose should be an auditory experience. The texts should “sound” realistic in the readers mind; for example in dialogs. You have probably heard the expression “make it sound natural.” The key is the word “sound.” However, most writing is physically devoid of any sound, for the most part. There are some authors that do read their material out loud and this is also, a recommended technique.

“In fact, during the very first day of a play’s rehearsal, the cast sits around a table and then they read the play out loud.”

Now, when you’re reading your texts out lout, say from your computer screen, there are at least two physically demanding processes taking place. One is the process whereby you have to read out loud, move your vocal chords, enunciate and this takes a lot of “brain power.” At the same time you need to listen and decipher what you’re reading, (we call it parsing speech) and this too takes a lot of power. Perhaps these two processes leave little precious time for analysis; especially when it comes to matters of language subtleties, style, context and meaning. Furthermore, when you are reading out loud your voice is going in the opposite direction from your ears and at the very least, it will sound differently than if the sound was coming straight at you.

So how do we remedy this problem? You could ask a friend to read the texts to you but this is impractical. Sometimes all you need to do is review a small paragraph at 3:00AM. I doubt whether you could get such help on demand.

Another important issue is that when it comes to signal processing, the human ear is a lot more discriminating than human vision. We could read over a misspelled word dozens of times and not see it, particularly when this word is buried within a 100,000 word manuscript. But, I can almost guarantee that you will immediately pick it up if it is pronounced incorrectly.

For example, I had the word “shinning” written when I really meant “shining.” These words are both spelled correctly, but in the context of my sentence, only the word “shining” was correct. I must have read the offending paragraph several dozen times and didn’t see it. However, the first time the computer read it out loud to me, I thought: “What a silly computer, it doesn’t know how to pronounce correctly.” But when I looked into it a little more, I soon realized that it was “I” the one that was wrong; yet again. The problem is that visually there was only one extra letter “n.” Listen to both pronunciations and you will immediately understand what I mean.

Play 1. Shining
Play 2. Shinning

You may be wondering how this could be. Imagine that you’re sitting at a classical music concert. Let’s say that they were playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 9. At any given time there could be dozens if not hundreds of musical notes being played at once. Now let’s assume that the piano player hits the wrong key and that the sound carries enough volume to be heard; thus, creating a dissonance. Even if you are unfamiliar with the work and/or are not musically trained, your auditory mechanism would pick it up. That is, your brain’s sound signal processing capability is so incredibly fast and accurate that it will separate and distinguish the offending note from all background noise or music.

So my recommendation to you is to use computer “Speech synthesis” to help you write better “sounding” prose. Windows XP and Windows 7 already come with Text to Speech voice synthesis. Some people call this robotic voice because it sounds like a robot. Basically the way that it works is that you highlight a paragraph in MS Word and click on a button and the computer will start reading the text out loud. By the way, I use headsets to isolate the background noise. The following is a sound snipped uses Windows XP’s voice called Mary.

Play 3. Mary's voice sample

Some people call this robotic voice because it sounds like a robot.

The basic Speech Synthesis program that comes with Windows might not be quite good enough. However, there are truly amazing programs out there that are simply outstanding. Do some research and you can pick what works best for you. Some product offerings have multiple voice/speakers in multiple languages and/or with different accents. For example a British female voice or an American male voice, et. al.

But beyond catching spelling errors, I find that the more sophisticated speech synthesis programs can help you create better  conversational styles. These programs will enunciate in such a natural manner that sometimes one cannot even tell that a computer is doing the reading. I will leave you with another voice snipped of a dialogue from my upcoming romantic adventure novel. Let’s see what you think.

Play 4. Fred's dialogue with his wife Chelsea


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