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How Free Text-to-Speech Software Can Improve Your Writing

Updated on August 30, 2014

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!

NaturalReader Free App Review


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    • Sairen Samuel profile image

      Sairen Samuel 

      3 months ago

      For listening to the words on your screen or for proofreading, the best app is "Text Speaker". I use this app for listening to the notes that I have typed and this helps me a lot in correcting mistakes. Sometimes I also create mp3 file to listen to it on my phone. Works well.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Ellen, I've heard so much about this in the past. I would love to find a free one on my Mac and give it a try. Other than fantasy and sci fi, it can work for any genre and market as well. Thanks for the tip.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I have used the one for Google chrome at first it didn't work but all I needed to do was restart my computer, then highlight the words and press the speaker icon. I recommend this because it's real easy to download, and it was clear in what it has to say.

    • HikeGuy profile image


      7 years ago from Northern California Coast

      Thanks for the detailed review on this. I've been meaning to try text-to-speech for editing -- and now that I'm doing a lot more independent projects, I'm even more motivated to try new ways to improve my copy.

      I'm transitioning out of freelancing into increasing my writing for revenue projects (blogs,sites and eBooks) -- and even though I've done some editing professionally, I know what you mean about that disconnect when I'm reading my work... I sometimes read from the bottom to the top to trick my brain into *seeing* each word. I'll give NaturalReader a try.

    • DIMIR profile image


      7 years ago from Pennsylvania, United States

      I've always wanted to invest in good software for the fact of writing dialogue in stories, alone. It really is amazing how different a person's writing style is from their patterns of speech. This is a really cool hub with awesome advice!

    • Greekgeek profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from California

      It depends entirely on the voice software and the voices you use. Some are incredibly natural-sounding and have extensive pronunciation dictionaries so they almost never stumble; others sound more artificial and make more goofs. (It's hard for it to guess whether to pronounce "tear" to rhyme with "fear" or "bear," for example, since there's two different "tear" words spelled exactly the same way.)

      As I noted above, free voices tend to sound a little more computerish, whereas the paid voices are almost uncannily human. Even the cheap ones sound like they're taking a breath before they speak.

      Personally, I find it doesn't take me more than a minute or two to stop hearing the voice, just as when reading you quickly stop seeing the type and type font.

    • DabbleYou profile image


      7 years ago

      Text-to-Speech does look interesting. But does it sound anything like the text to speech in cellphones and Microsoft Reader? If it does, I'm not sure it's a good idea to convert them to mp3s.

      Nice hub, though. Really enjoyed reading it.

    • Greekgeek profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from California

      I have tried doing a little voiceover work myself -- in fact, unpaid labor, I did some voice work for my mom's educational software -- and I know just what you mean about writing for reading vs. speaking! Voice work is incredibly interesting. I salute your friends in the industry.

      With no actual training, I've been trying to read aloud and turn one of my novellas into an audiobook. I thought those chapters were finished, but I've done a ton of editing based on stumbles when reading aloud. However, I still tend to overlook repeated words and typos; the synapses magically autocorrect them somewhere between my eyeballs and my conscious brain. Therefore, when I get finished writing a chapter, I'll sit down to lunch and have NaturalReader read it back to me to hear all those typos my keyboard stuck in. Amazing how that happens, isn't it?

    • profile image


      7 years ago


      Thanks for the interesting article. I've tried several text to speech products and Natural Reader seems to work best for me. I wish I could afford some of the better voices!

      I was especially interested in your section about proof reading. This is a real thorn in my side because my keyboards makes so many typing mistakes (I never make a mistake (joke :) I agree, having the computer read the document is one way to improve the proofing!

      BTW, I know several voice over (narrator) folks and I have learned from them that there is a big difference between writing copy for reading, and writing copy for speaking. Some things that scan and read well are a nightmare to speak in a narration.

      Anyway, I enjoyed your article thanks a lot! I vote you a "interesting" and "Useful" in the buttons above!


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