The Ears Have It

The Ears Have It
By Terry Odell

Deer EarAs authors, we want to provide the best possible experience for our readers. That means providing a well-edited book, and the more reliable eyes on the manuscript, the better. But I’ve learned you need ears on the manuscript as well.

Skipping the ‘read it out loud’ editing pass means you’re going to miss things. Heck, even when you do read it out loud, you still miss things, because you’re too familiar with what you’ve written. Your eye sees what’s supposed to be on the page. That’s what you’ll read; that’s what you’ll hear.

Since I can’t afford a narrator to read the book aloud twice, and I don’t know anyone who’d be crazy enough spend the time to read the book to me, I investigated having my computer do the job. I’d tried it a long time ago, and the robotic voice was impossible to listen to. However, there have been improvements in the system, so I decided to give things another shot. Here’s what I discovered.

Disclaimer. I use Microsoft Word.

Word has two ways to have the computer read your manuscript to you, and since they’re part of Word, you don’t need to install (or pay for) another program. One is the Speak Selected Text option which I blogged about here.

The other option is Read Aloud, and here’s a peek at how it works. Note: “Read Aloud” offers a choice of narrators, which is nice to break things up. I chose the female voice for this section.

You can find more here.

Depending on your version of Word, you may be able to use one or both.

Whereas my audiobook narrators are performers, the Word guy who’s reading my text to me (I call him Fred) simply recites the words on the page. Unlike the audiobook narrators who sometimes leave out words, or substitute others, “Fred” is going to read exactly what’s on the page. For example, I’d read this paragraph countless times, as had my editor and crit partners.

She drove the up the dirt lane. A beam of sunlight shone through a break in the gray winter sky, reflecting off a sprawling white two-story house, as if to say, This is your light in the darkness.

No one saw the typo on any of their passes. Did you notice it? On the first read? Or were you paying close attention because I told you there was a typo? When “Fred” read it, the extra “the” jumped right out.

Listening forces you to go slowly. Depending on which option you use, you might be able to speed the read a bit, but you can’t ‘skim-listen.’ While “Fred” reads, I have the manuscript open. I look for wrong punctuation, improper spacing, and the like. If I catch repeated words that evaded my eyes but not my ears, I’ll fix those as well.

If Fred doesn’t know a word, he’ll spell it. Usually, these are acronyms, but sometimes it’s a word he’s not programmed for. Other time, his programming doesn’t work exactly right. In one instance, he read, “The paramedic inserted an four.” Can you figure out what I’d written? Answer at the end of the post.

There will be pronunciation errors. “Fred” doesn’t read in context. He doesn’t emphasize words in italics. He speeds up for dashes and hyphens. Our language is filled with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. The computer doesn’t read context, so you’ll get the occasional jolt for words like live, read, wind, dove, close, bow, complex, and presents, but that’s good, because it makes you pay attention.

Other “fun” jolts come from Fred’s programming regarding abbreviations, as in “Joe came into the room and sat.” Fred read this as “Joe came into the room and Saturday.” Or, when the character said, “Wait a sec,” Fred read “Wait a section.”

No matter which method you choose, hearing a computer read exactly what you’ve written is a critical—and ear-opening—step in the editing process. By the time “Fred” and I are through the manuscript, I’m hoping to have a better product for my readers.

Is it worth it? I’d say yes, especially when you get a review like this one: “After reading so many books with poor editing, I was very happy to finally read a book without the distracting errors and I was able to enjoy the story.”

As for what I’d written: “The paramedic inserted an IV.”

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

25 thoughts on “The Ears Have It

  1. Mac has built-in text-to-speech. Edit->Speech->Start speaking.
    This works best if you select the passage you want it to read.

    But it’s awkward. If you have to stop, say to correct a typo or do other edit, you need to reselect the passage (or what’s left from the point you stopped).

    I use a little app called Dictater. “Dictater is a replacement for OS X’s built-in Speech services. The program allows you to pause the audio, skip forward by sentences or paragraphs, replay sentences, and more. Also, the program features a progress indicator and a teleprompter mode – that reads along with the audio.”

    This works nicely in Scrivener and BBEdit and, I think, with MS Word. It doesn’t work with LibreOffice Writer, but then Mac’s built-in text-to-speech doesn’t work with Writer either. If I need to listen to something in Writer, I cut-and-paste the selection to my text editor (BBEdit). (I haven’t tried the LibreOffice extension that does text-to-speech:

    To tinker with Mac’s reader–change voices, change reading speed: System Preferences->Accessibility->Speech.

    • Thanks for sharing. I’m a PC person, not a Mac, and I like ‘built-ins’ rather than having to add apps whenever possible. Word’s Read Aloud has a mini player, so it’s easy to stop, start, and put your cursor where you want the recording to pick up again. The “Read Selected Text” function is less sophisticated, but it worked well enough for me before I found the Read Aloud feature. I have a short attention span, so working in small chunks was effective.

    • You’re welcome, Mike. Listening is totally different from reading, so it should be part of the editing process.

  2. Terry, great info. Thanks! I recently upgraded to a newer Word and will activate Read Aloud.

    A member of my critique group uses Natural Reader which is free. That catches an amazing number of words that are left out, repeated, and misplaced. But the robotic voice is pretty annoying.

    An eagle-eyed reader just brought this goof to my attention:

    “Come on, let’s back go to the hotel.”

    I reread that sentence a dozen times, including out loud, before finally catching the error. I kept seeing and hearing “what’s supposed to be on the page.”

    My brain was auto-correcting both my eyes AND my ears!

    • So true. Debbie. While none of these applications have “real human” voices, they’re getting better. And their mistakes can be fun, too!

  3. I always get asked about text to speech or speech to text programs, and I never have an answer. I use the one created for blind people, and that’s it. But people assume that I only use my ears, that I don’t use my fingers to type, or that I wouldn’t much prefer reading a hard book. It’s insulting… and I mean always insulting because it brings up all the things I’m forced to use when my auditory skills are no better than anyone else’s. The worst question was: do you have a program that sounds human. The answer is no, because when you’re forced to use something to survive, you learn how to get the information from it and not dwell on the pronunciations.

    • Thanks for sharing, AZAli – we adapt to dealing with what’s available, don’t we?

  4. As Will Smith said in “Independence Day”, piloting the alien spacecraft for the first time…”I gotta get me one of these!”

    Thanks, Terry. I try to read my MSs aloud, but I find myself dozing off. Ha! Because I’ve read it so darn many times, I guess. I’m gonna try this forthwith. (And it sure beats dragging my husband kicking and screaming into my office and hogtying him to the recliner so I can read aloud to him.) 🙂

    • If you’re going to engage your husband, you should probably coerce him into doing the reading. 🙂 When I tried the ‘read it yourself’ method, the dog deserted my office.

  5. Great post! BTW, if you want to hear the latest in AI voices, check this out:
    Don’t think they provide text-to-voice, but you can see the direction this is heading.

    P.S. I caught the typo immediately, but then, I didn’t write it ;-)))

    • That looks fascinating, Harald. Based on this from their site, “Create audio versions of your online and digital content in real-time without the need to invest in voice actors and costly studio time,” I’d be curious to know what professional narrators think of being “replaced” by computers.
      Good eyes on the typo (but then, I did give a heads up!) 😉

  6. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to have my book read aloud. Usually by that point, I am so tired of the book, it’s hard to make myself take that extra step. But it is worth it.

    • I learned that the hard way, Patricia, when I put my first books into audio and listened to my narrators’ read throughs. Too many clunkers, not to mention some downright mistakes. And, if you are putting the books into audio, then you have to listen to it twice–once via the computer, and again when the narrator reads it. I’m not an audio person, so it’s even more challenging.

  7. Hi Terry,

    Thank you for giving a rundown on the Read Aloud Option in Word, and also emphasizing the importance of reading your work aloud, however it’s done. It’s something my wonderful wife, who is one of my beta readers, has urged me to do, but I often end up with deadlines that make that hard. I have a great member of my advance review team who serves as a typo hunter, but this would save her some work as well. After all, every step of the process matters 🙂

    • So true, Dale (and kudos to your wife). It’s amazing how much more will jump out at you when the computer reads, because it doesn’t “know” what’s supposed to be there.

  8. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to have my book read aloud. Usually by that point, I am so tired of the book, it’s hard to make myself take that extra step. But it is worth it.
    On a second note, I hopped over to read the link you posted and appreciate the step by step visual! Then I got caught up reading the text…next thing I knew, I was at Amazon buying Identity Crisis. 🙂

    • Wow, Patricia – thanks SO much for buying the book based on a 19 second read. Hope you enjoy it.

  9. I’ve used text-to-speech for many years for proof reading. I installed it long before every computer had to have it because of Citizens with Disabilities. Using it with digital galleys is always part of my final proofing process, too. One of my favorite tricks is to speed up the voice enough that I have to pay close attention, and I’m less prone to zone out. If none of the voices work for you, there are free ones and not free ones to choose from online. If you’re having to listen for a long period of time, change up the voices every few chapters or so.

    • Read Aloud does have a speed control, and yes, I push it as far as I can without getting chipmunks. For my romances, I usually switch between a male and female voice depending on the POV character.
      Just like with printing in a different font to fool the eye, changing voices can give you fresh ears.

  10. I can’t get past the computerized voice, but I can see its benefits. For me, I upload my manuscript to my Kindle and read aloud. Changing the medium, font, and font size or color, helps find the typos I’ve missed.

    • Thanks, Sue
      I’ve used (and still do) several reading methods, including printing the MS in a different font and in columns to totally change the way the words line up. I miss more when I use my e-reader than when it’s a hard copy printout. But that listening pass is still vital for me, as is reading it aloud myself. My brain-eye connection is totally different from my brain-ear connection. It normally only takes a couple of pages to adjust to the voices in Read Aloud for me.

  11. I’ve been using Word’s Read Aloud for several years. The program has improved a great deal from the earlier versions. I agree, it catches many errors that my editing software misses. Thanks for sharing your experience with the program.

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