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How Free Text-to-Speech Software Can Improve Your Writing
Hear The Words on the Screen
I've been using Text-to-Speech since the 80s for entertainment. Macs were talking to us long before Siri introduced the world to its delightfully retro voice that sounds like "I am your pet computer" or "I am your digital servant" as opposed to "I am Hal" or "I am some creepily disembodied human that knows more than you, bwahaha!" Yes, talking computers have their advantages, especially now that they can help you find where you parked.
Text-to-speech software has more old-fashioned advantages as well.
For one thing, voice software is incredibly handy for people with physical or visual disabilities. It allows visually-impaired users to whip off an email or write a book without needing a sighted person or special machine to transcribe Braile for them. Physically limited users don't have to scroll, click, or move their heads with a screen reader. There are hundreds of millions of people with various disabilities using text-to-speech and voice recognition software to help them surf the web, communicate, and work. I heartily recommend reviewing these Guidelines for Writing Accessible Content for Screen Readers so that you'll understand how they "see" webpages and what we can do to structure our content so that it works for this large audience.
Even if you don't have disabilities, it's handy being able to listen instead of being locked to screen and keyboard. You can copy-and-paste a half-dozen articles from your favorite magazine, or plug in a short story from an online author, and listen while exercising or doing chores.
Over the years, I've found myself using text-to-speech more and more. I'm especially fond of listening to short stories written by online friends. I discovered something interesting in this way: If I write immediately after listening to an excellent story, I find my own vocabulary and writing much improved. You've probably discovered this "chameleon" effect by writing immediately after reading a book or watching a movie, but the effect is even more pronounced when you've heard someone else's writing.
Most of all, I've discovered that text-to-speech lets me proorfread and edit my own writing much more effectively.
Built-In Speech for Mac, iPad
On Mac, go to System Preferences > Speech and look for the option "Speak selected text when this key is pressed." Set whatever key-combo you want (make sure it's nothing you use for anything else; mine is set to alt-esc).
Then you can select a chunk of text on a page -- select the first line, scroll down, and shift-click the end of the chunk -- and hit that key-combo to hear the computer read it aloud. The pronunciation is sometimes clumsy, but I've gotten used to it.
On iPad, it's a little more tricky. Go into Settings, Accessibility, Voiceover Settings, and set the triple-click to activate Voiceover. Then... here's the tricky part... when viewing a page:
- Triple click to activate voiceover
- Click on the paragraph you want it to start reading
- Two-finger swipe DOWN, starting on that paragraph and moving past the bottom of it, to indicate "read from here to end of page"
- Triple click to deactivate voiceover
A Proofreader That Reads Your Words Aloud
The biggest challenge in proofreading is to force yourself to view your writing critically. If you are familiar with a piece of writing, you will not only miss typos, omitted or repeated words, which your brain automatically corrects without your consciously realizing it. You will also miss places where your thoughts are disconnected and do not flow properly.
You understand just how one idea flows into the next, even if you haven't stated it clearly. Your reader will not. Hearing a computer read it back to you adds just enough unfamiliarity that you may hear the dropped connections, and think, "Wait, how does X lead to Y?"
You will also hear awkward phrasings. Reading aloud can help you to detect these problems as well. If you or the computer trips over a phrasing, the chances are that your readers will, too. Help them out by polishing and rewording tricky sentences, run-on sentences, or sentences that you get lost trying to follow when you hear them spoken.
Finally, of course, hearing your words aloud will help you catch spelling errors, some typos, repeated or omitted words.
What to Look for in Speech Software
So, what text-to-speech software is out there? I haven't tried screen readers, and I've been sticking to one particular piece of text-to-speech software, NaturalReader, which is a little glitchy (it sometimes gets stuck if I hit pause and then play, forcing me to stop, find my place and hit play again). Tip for Mac users: if you purchase the paid version of NaturalReader, make sure you purchase "NaturalReader for Mac." The free version is cross-platform; the paid one is not.
Most text-to-speech software will let you copy text from anywhere and paste it into the reader's window; it'll then read it back to you. Some will read webpage URLs or textfiles. Free readers tend to use your computer's built-in voices, which are rather artificial-sounding. Paid readers let you edit and add pronunciations of unfamiliar words, convert text to mp3s or other sound files that can be stored and played on various devices, or purchase better voices, which sound more human and have extensive dictionaries to help them pronounce more words correctly.
I've listed a few well-recommended Text-to-Speech programs below. You will find more if you search the web for "Text-to-Speech Software," but as usual, be cautious about downloading unfamiliar software from seedy-looking websites. Tucows and Cnet are good places to download "free" software, because they have done virus checks. I have downloaded and use NaturalReader from its website, so I can confirm it's safe!
Free Text-to-Speech Reading Software
- NaturalReader Text-to-Speech Software
Download the Free NaturalReader -- this is what I used, and I love the app (try the UK voices!) The paid version allows you to edit/add pronunciations or create mp3s, although the mp3 creator glitches on very long chapters.
- Ultra Hal Text-to-Speech Reader - Windows Only
Ultra Hal is a simple, no-frills text-to-speech program which is well-recommended. Windows only. I haven't tried it, but it's well-reviewed on CNET.
- TextAloud - Also Windows-Only
The trial version gives you full use of the program. After the trial period, I believe it still works, but you are limited to the default Windows voices which aren't very natural-sounding. I haven't tried it, but there's many favorable reviews.
- GhostReader: commercial text to speech software for Mac OS X
GhostReader has a free trial period and a reasonable price for what it offers. I has more features and a better interface, but I stick to NR because it's free.