To write well, learn how to read

Print out your document and read it aloud to your cat.

As far as I can tell, one of the major impediments to writing well is an inability to read. I’m not talking about basic illiteracy here. I’m talking about the following tendency that I have seen in many literate people: reading what one thinks was written rather than what was actually written. If you have this tendency, you may subconsciously fix grammatical errors, insert words that aren’t actually on the page, or even fill in larger logical gaps. You may also subconsciously delete words that shouldn’t be there in the first place. You probably do this when you read other people’s prose, and you’ll do it even more so when you read your own prose. As a result, you won’t notice when your writing has issues. And hence you won’t fix the issues. Your readers, however, may notice them, or they may simply not understand what you’re trying to say. If you are interested in writing clear and understandable prose, make sure that you’re actually reading what you wrote, not what you think you wrote.

Can you read?

So, how do you know whether you’re reading sufficiently well? To a first approximation, I’d assume that nobody can read. I know that’s not true, but in my experience it’s an approximation that matches reality reasonably well. However, to be more constructive, let me offer some specific self-assessments for you.

First, in my previous blog post I purposefully introduced a few grammatical mistakes, as a pun. I pointed out the respective paragraph to a couple of students. Some got my pun immediately, but others didn’t notice that anything was wrong. Even when specifically searching for issues they couldn’t find them. Why don’t you check out that post right now and see if you notice anything? The specific sentence I’m talking about is in the second paragraph. What’s wrong with it is explained in the notes.1

Second, read the present paragraph carefully.There are several typographic mistakes here. Do you notice them?. It’s very important  to  pay close attention to even the most minute details. You may think it doesn’t matter much, but some of your readers will pay close attention, and they will notice almost anything. For them, too many little mistakes and issues will make your writing unpalatable. Again, you can find an explanation of what’s wrong with this paragraph in the notes.2

Third, let’s consider situations where grammatical mistakes actually alter the meaning of a sentence. For example, consider this sentence:

Painted in exquisite detail, you can sell this painting for a high price.

What does this sentence tell you? Did you understand that you have a painting that is painted in exquisite detail, and that therefore you can sell it at a high price? If that’s what you read, I’ve got bad news for you: You need to work on your reading comprehension. That’s not what the sentence says at all. The sentence says that you, the reader, have been painted in exquisite detail, and that therefore you can sell this painting (about which we know nothing) for a high price.

Let’s consider a different example:

We found that lions do not generally like to eat ice cream which agrees with our prior expectations.

What did this sentence tell you? Did you understand that we had a prior expectation that lions don’t eat ice cream, and that this expectation was confirmed in our experiment feeding ice cream to lions? If that’s what you got from this sentence then you have to pay closer attention to what is actually written. What the sentence actually says is that certain ice creams agree with our prior expectations. (Whatever they are. We are not told.) Those specific ice creams are not palatable to lions. Other ice creams, those that don’t agree with our prior expectations, may well be palatable to lions, but we are not told anything about them.

You might think that there is a punctuation mistake, that a comma is needed after “ice cream.” Unfortunately, even with that comma, the sentence still doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense in a different way.3

How to improve

There are a couple of simple techniques and exercises that you can do to improve your reading. First, get a good book or two about the intricacies of the English language.4 Go through the examples in these books, in particular the examples of how one should not write, and try to figure out what’s wrong with them and how you could fix them. With practice, you’ll get quite good at recognizing problematic writing.

Second, it’s really important that you slow down your reading speed. If you frequently read over grammatical mistakes or logical gaps then you’re reading too fast. It’s Ok to read fast when you’re reading somebody else’s words, but when you proof-read your own you need to be slow. A simple way to slow down your reading speed is to sit down and read your text aloud. It’s really difficult to do that and not notice missing pieces or logical gaps.

Third, to assess overall flow and sentence connections, it’s important to read larger units of text. If you constantly go back and forth between reading and editing, you may be so focused on individual sentences that you’ll never notice larger issues that may exist in your prose. Make sure that when you proof-read you read larger chunks of text at once.

Fourth, I find it important to read a document multiple times exactly in the same format in which it will be seen by my readers. I can’t exactly pinpoint why it makes a difference but I know it does. For example, when I write scientific papers or grant proposals, I tend to do most of my proof-reading on printouts. On printouts, I always find issues that I didn’t see while editing. In these days of high-resolution screens and tablets, maybe you feel that printing documents shouldn’t be necessary anymore. And maybe you’re right. However, at a minimum, export the document from your word processor and read it on the screen just how your readers would. For example, create a pdf, open it on your tablet, and proof-read there. Make comments in longhand onto the pdf. (There are excellent apps for this purpose.) I proof-read all my blog posts on the web site, in the final format. I always find many minor issues that I didn’t see when I was composing the post.5

Students frequently hand me documents that look like they have never been proof-read. And when I ask the students whether they printed out the document and went over it slowly with a pen, the answer is usually “no.” Don’t be that student. Proof-read your documents carefully before giving them to somebody else. Don’t rely on others to find your writing mistakes, find them yourself.

  1. The last sentence is missing three articles. It should have read:

    But make one non-native mistake, such as not using an article when an article is needed, and you’ll immediately sound like a person with poor English skills.

    I thought that native English speakers would immediately notice the missing articles and get the impression that this sentence was written by a foreigner. Well, some did and some didn’t.↩︎

  2. Issues in this paragraph:

    • Missing space after “carefully.” (1st sentence)

    • Extra period in “Do you notice them?.” (3rd sentence)

    • Excessive space around “to” (before and after) in “It’s very important  to  pay” (4th sentence)

  3. With the comma, the sentence says that lions don’t like to eat ice cream, and that ice cream typically doesn’t agree with our prior expectations. If you don’t see that, consider the following modification of the sentence:

    We found that lions do not generally like to eat ice cream, which is cold and full of sugar.

  4. A couple of good ones are: Lyn Dupre, BUGS in writing; Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by line; Lynne Truss, Eats, shoots & leaves; Patricia T. O’Conner; Woe is I.↩︎

  5. I compose my posts in google docs and upload them once they’re done. Then I spend another hour or so copy-editing in the final format.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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