Text-to-speech: a digital proofreader that makes you a smarter writer

Craft Lessons
Center for Writing, University of Minnesota

Lately, I’ve been plagued by gremlins, those mischievous sprites that cause problems when you’re trying to get something done without fault.

Just recently, I submitted a freelance article that, after several revisions, had finally been accepted for publication. I copyedited it. I ran spellcheck. Several times.

I hit send and then — it’s always the case, it seems — gremlins popped up, smirking, their job done.

A missing article.

A misplaced quotation mark.

A word repeated twice in the same sentence: “that that”

Minor stuff, sure, but the kind of errors that keep writers up at night, worrying whether they got things right. The kind that makes an editor wonder she’s been dealing with an amateur all along and won’t make the same mistake twice.

These are the kinds of mistakes you see in a newspaper, a book or on a website that make you wonder what else they got wrong. Like facts. Or quotes.

I’d made another big mistake. I’d lost touch with Moira.

Moira is Irish, a young woman with a lilting, though slightly robotic voice. She lives inside my MacBook Pro, nestled under the System Preferences. Moira is a text-to-speech feature, a digital proofreader that, when I have the brains to use her, makes my copy cleaner, smoother, less prone, if not always immune, to rhetorical gaffes.

Moira is a young Irishwoman with a lilting, though slightly robotic, voice. She lives inside my MacBook Pro, nestled under the System Preferences.

Moira is a text-to-speech feature, (TTS) a digital proofreader that, when I have the brains to use her, makes my copy cleaner, smoother and less prone, if not always immune, to gaffes.

All I need do is go to the Dictation and Speech feature in System Preferences, choose among number of voices, select a key to activate TTS and I’m ready to roll.

Moira reads everything I define, from Word and Google documents to emails and text on Web sites, as soon as I simultaneously hit the control and K keys. Hit them again and she pauses in time for me to correct my mistakes.

Losing touch with Moira brought to mind a column I wrote in 2013 extolling the virtues of text-to-speech. Reading it over, I recalled all the advantages TTS offers. (As you’ll see, I’ve switched loyalties from Alex, my first, very robotic-sounding first TTS reader, to the accented tune of Moira.)

“In the three years that TTS has become part of my editing toolkit, Alex has improved my writing, bolstered accuracy and made my stories more graceful. Text-to-speech lets me hear my stories, simultaneously comparing them with the written version, allowing me to detect flaws of word choice, pacing and grammar that I can change on the fly.

When I listen carefully to Alex, he tells me when “know” should be “now.” He guides me to unnecessary sentences and paragraphs. I still rely on the spell and grammar checker, but Alex always manages to find lingering mistakes. I relied on him for every word in my latest book that already had the benefit of a first-rate copy editor. Alex still found missing words, homonyms, such as “then” and “than,” and things I revised but then neglected to delete my original mistake. These days, I let Alex “edit’ my copy before I even activate spell-check.

The brain conspires to keep us from getting things right. We make unconscious errors based on our kinesthetic memory that preserves motions and explains why we can ride a bicycle for the first time since childhood and, after a few wobbles, confidently pedal away. It stores keystrokes as well, which is why I habitually spell judgment with two e’s.

Romance novelist Carolyn Jewel, I noted back then, raved in a testimonial about Text Aloud, her preferred TTS. Hearing her work read aloud by a computer kept her from “supplying meaning that isn’t really there. Lots of writers recommend literally reading one’s work aloud because it’s a great way to catch clunky phrases and repetitive bits. I tried that once, but it’s pretty hard on the voice, and it still doesn’t solve the issue of your eyes and brain conspiring to ‘fix’ typos for you.”

Reading aloud works really well, especially if there’s someone to read to you. But when that’s not possible, text-to-speech is a valuable substitute. Five years after I wrote that column, I’m still a fan of TTS. I’ve started using it again, reacquainting myself with Moira and marveling at the way she keeps the gremlins at bay. I recommend it highly. If those gremlins pop up, I can only blame myself.

PS. Since I first wrote about TTS, Microsoft has vastly upgraded its TTS feature, once vastly inferior to the Apple version. Windows 10 is now on par. One caveat: no Moira.

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