Renovating my dilapidated eyesore of a shed into an art studio has me thinking about different kinds of writing projects.

An essay, novel, short story, or poem is like a new construction custom home. You invest all the thought, time, and energy you can to get it right. Many rules exist – grammar, punctuation, spelling, building codes – but even working within these rules, there’s tremendous room for creativity, for creating something stunning or groundbreaking, something with lasting impact. Many non-fiction books are written with this same commitment.

News reports, contributed articles, case studies, and press releases are like new construction tract homes, slapped together under a deadline. They follow the same basic rules but also follow a very limiting set of additional parameters (structural components, jargon, repeated floor plans and facades) to make them easier and less expensive to produce. They can be useful and even important, but they are often of poor quality, making the writing hard to consume and the buildings subject to a variety of problems, such as leaks. Most unfortunately, many writing projects that have no deadline are written as if they do.

Next comes editing someone else’s work or adapting a piece of writing for a completely different purpose. Like renovating an older structure, you really don’t know what you’re going to encounter until you start tearing things apart. If you’ve watched contractors doing this, you realize they often have to improvise. They keep key goals in mind – correct size, level, sufficient support, leak prevention, and building codes if there will be an inspection – and then cut, hammer, tape, strap, cheat, shim and caulk to achieve their ends. “Whatever works” is the guideline, and this is often the case with editing projects. Last week I was asked to do a last-minute proof of a press release I’d drafted weeks earlier and that had gone through numerous revisions. Unfortunately, some introductory information had been taken out, so out of the blue, a product was mentioned with absolutely no description or context. At first I thought the only good solution was another major revision, but since there wasn’t time, I got on the phone with the account director and talked through the problem. As we discussed more and more drastic repairs, I suddenly saw I could quickly introduce the product early on with just an added phrase. It certainly wasn’t the best solution, but it eliminated the most jarring effect and met the time constraints. The caulking gun approach.

I think of the kind of writing more and more of us do every day – the short email or blog post – as the equivalent of decorating projects, like putting up shelves or hanging some pictures. These are typically useful projects, but their real importance is the role they play in the overall effect and usability of the décor. We can choose to do these projects fast and sloppy or slow and neat. Is the picture at the right height? Does it hang straight? Are the shelves level and properly spaced? The better we execute on each project, the better the overall effect. It’s the same in writing. Each blog post may be useful in its own way, but the real importance is in the cumulative effect. Which is why execution on each piece matters.

To stretch the analogy just a bit further, in the same way that expensive furnishings and a paint job can obscure construction flaws in a building, interesting content can sometimes overcome weaknesses in structure and sentencing – while tasteless decorating and uninteresting content can make excellent construction irrelevant.

“So what about Tweets?” I ask, as I click over to Twitter to check the stream. It may not be writing at all. It may be poetry. More on this later.

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It’s most obvious with non-native speakers of English. Despite knowing more about English grammar than most native speakers and having a broad recognition vocabulary, they often continue to struggle to construct a workable English sentence.

Why?

Here are some excerpts from a 1985 Donald Hall essay in Newsweek titled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.”

“When we stopped memorizing and reciting literature, our ability to read started its famous decline. It was the loss of recitation – not its replacements (radio, film, television) – that diminished our literacy.”

“If when we read silently we do not hear a text, we slide past words passively, without making decisions….”

“In the old Out-Loud Culture, print was always potential speech; even silent readers too shy to read aloud, inwardly heard the sound of words. Their culture identified print and voice. Everyone’s ability to read was enhanced by recitation. Then we read aggressively; then we demanded sense…”

“As children speak poems and stories aloud, by the pitch and muscle of their voices they will discover drama, humor, passion and intelligence in print.”

As children – and adults – speak poems, stories, essays, and even well-written news articles and business reports aloud, they also hear the natural syntax, phrasing, and rhythm of English. They learn it as music, and just as song lyrics float around in the mind ready to be called upon when needed, this memorized syntax and phrasing will sit upon the tongue when we write.

Most people think reading is the best training for writing, but we write with our ear, not our eye. We voice our sentences onto the page, and the more we train our ears, the better – clearer, more powerful, more dramatic, more musical – our sentencing will be. Reading silently can help us become better editors, help us spot what looks wrong on the page. But as Donald Hall suggests, most silent readers “slide past words passively.” They pick up some meaning from the words (rarely demanding sense) but hear none of the power or nuance or even basic correctness. They don’t hear what sounds bad and what sounds good.

That’s why so much business and government writing is so awful. It isn’t that the writers aren’t educated or don’t care enough to take the time to do a good job. They simply don’t have a trained ear. Wrote Russell Baker in How to Punctuate, “When you write, you make a sound in the reader’s head. It can be a dull mumble–that’s why so much government prose makes you sleepy—or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.” If you can’t hear it, you can’t write it.

Even native-speaking adults can improve their ear for the music of English. It’s never too late. To train your ear, pick the best examples of the type of writing you want to do and read them aloud. Hear the music—the richness and variety in the sentencing. Then start reading all sorts of things aloud, and hear the difference. Hear and see the tangled, twisted sentence. Hear and see the difference between dull and dramatic repetition. Then read your own writing aloud.

Beyond helping us write sentences that are more natural, musical, and correct, reading aloud helps us “read aggressively and demand sense.” Only then will we begin to write the same way, examining our sentences to ensure the words work together efficiently to make sense.

This clarity is all the more important today as busy writers communicate in short emails, brief blogs, and 140-character Twitter bursts, while busy readers attempt to consume far more than they can stomach in a day.

Whether you’re goal is correctness, clarity, or power, reading aloud will help.

Bonus tip: If you write in MS Word, you can have Windows XP or Vista read back your drafts using text-to-speech. This is a great way to proofread drafts and hear mistakes you might miss when reading. I’ve started creating instructions for this in The Writing Wiki, but could use some help.

Here’s a crude example of text-to-speech: