Use text-to-speech to improve your writing

An oft-recommended way to improve writing is to read it aloud. Reading aloud slows you down, giving you the opportunity to catch missing words, awkward phrasings, and other mistakes that are easy to gloss over when you’re familiar with a text. It’s good advice mainly because it works, but I find that it’s not fool-proof. As a fool, I slack off and mumble through, completely missing the point of the exercise. And even if I do it properly, I can still defeat myself by unconsciously fixing mistakes in my verbal rendition, never giving myself the opportunity to hear them.

So, yet again, technology comes to the rescue. Instead of reading aloud to myself, I have my computer read aloud to me. This has some major benefits: the computer won’t fix mistakes (what you hear is what you get) and with headphones it’s possible to do this kind of proofreading anywhere, without looking foolish (or additionally foolish, as the case may be). Plus, hearing it in the HAL 9000-esque voice of the computer distinguishes the words from the voice in your head; it separates the idea of the text from the text itself.

There are a bunch of tools out there to do this sort of thing, including free and paid applications, browser plugins, and operating system services. You can Google them if you like. I’ll just share my personal favorite, which is built-in to Mac OS X. With a few steps, it’s easy to configure OS X to read selected text aloud with a keyboard shortcut (it’s my understanding that Windows 7 has a similar feature in the form of Narrator, though I’ve never used it).

To enable this text-to-speech feature:

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Click Speech.
  3. Click Text to Speech.
  4. Click Speak selected text when the key is pressed.
  5. Click the Set Key… button.
  6. Press the keyboard shortcut you want to press to read selected text aloud. I use Alt + Esc.

Now, any text you can select can be read aloud by your Mac: select it and press the keyboard shortcut. You can stop playback by pressing the keyboard shortcut a second time.

See also: Notifications, Automation, and Text-to-Speech