Listening, legal writing, and legal reading: there’s an app for that

One theme of this blog tilts toward the Luddite: let’s put down our phones, look into one another’s eyes, and really listen, and listen some more. But another theme is to stop worrying and learn to love the technology/internet/digital life etc. Want to be a great listener and a great lawyer? There’s an app for that.

Along those lines, there really is an app that can help listening play a valuable role in the writing and revision process (legal writing or any other kind of writing). Voice Dream Reader is an iPhone/iPad text-to-speech app ($9.99).

IMG_0202Voice Dream Reader can read word-processing documents, PDFs, webpages, certain kinds of digital books, and other types of documents. It integrates seamlessly with many other apps (I used it with Dropbox). Here’s a simple screen shot of some clipped text; visit the App Store to see more examples of what it can do: The default voice that comes with Voice Dream Reader is a little bit computer-ish. Buying a premium voice for $5 or $10 may make this work better for you. I tested out some voices and found that “Salli” was the most listenable for me personally.

Interacting with the app suggested several possibilities for using text-to-speech in legal writing, mainly engaging with your own written work for revising, editing, and proofreading. Text-to-speech could also be valuable for listening to particularly important texts (such as critical research sources). I used Voice Dream Reader to listen to various passages of legal writing and an article about listening and reading. Here are some thoughts on how this app (or other text-to-speech apps) could help with editing and with reading.

Listen to your own writing for flow and proofreading

Most obviously, you could use something like Voice Dream Reader to listen to your own writing. Open a document in Voice Dream Reader and listen to it. They say (and by “they say,” I mean everybody says) editing is about “getting distance from your work.” Listening to your own writing as read by a robot voice is one way to get some distance.

One feature of Voice Dream Reader that fascinated me was its ability to highlight each line and each word as it reads. Speech is slower than thought, and that’s one reason listening is such a challenge. By highlighting the line in yellow and the word inside a red box as it reads, Voice Dream Reader’s multiple inputs help to close that “thought-speech differential” and focus attention on the text. If the sentences are hard to listen to because they are convoluted, too long, or constructed in a confusing way, they probably aren’t readable either. Readability and listenability are closely related, although formulas that quantify readability and listenability may not be identical.* Whether listenability is precisely the same thing as readability need not be resolved by a writer with a pragmatic interest in editing.

To focus on the flow of ideas and connections of sentences, you could turn off the highlighting feature so you don’t see each word highlighted. Listen to the draft in a sort of auditory, storytelling mode. Stop the process when you feel a gap in the story; work on the problem, re-load the new text into Voice Dream (which doesn’t take long) and then resume the listening.

For proofreading, it might be desirable to use the app’s most robotic, computer-sounding voice. The goal is to use technology to get that distance from the draft; a robotic voice can help override the brilliant, friendly internal voice you may hear when editing your own work. (This is the voice that conveniently “fixes” errors as you go, thus compromising the editing process.) Reduce the rate of speech so . . . that . . . the . . . words . . . unroll . . . slowly. Turn on the line and word highlighting so that each word gets its own spotlight as you go.

Listening to a draft probably isn’t great for very large-scale revision questions. And it seems stronger for editing what is on the page rather than what isn’t. Still, it could have collateral benefits in these areas as well, prompting questions about organization and missing content. Listening to a draft is an investment of time (22:07 for a six-page double-spaced memo), but one that could be both interesting and beneficial.

Listen to the important legal authorities

Listening to a legal authority is another investment of time: 7:03 for the text of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; 36:14 just for the majority opinion in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980). But if a legal source is very, very important, it could be well worth the time to listen to the entire thing. You would know the document more thoroughly than if you simply read it silently and highlighted it. You could stop the reading and take notes. You could really hear language that was important or vivid and would therefore make a great quote in a piece of writing about that source.

This may be wishful thinking, but perhaps listening to a legal source could help with that elusive goal of “hearing what they’re not saying.” Expert legal readers can do this; law students learning to read cases are advised to notice what the court did not say or hold. (Linda Edwards’ Legal Writing: Process, Analysis, and Organization is one such text with this advice.)

By listening to a text, which is slower than reading, you have more time to run alternate scenarios of how the text might have been worded. Apart from using any app, reading the authority out loud in your own voice could be beneficial in related ways (maybe even more beneficial). Yet it also might be difficult to persevere through an entire legal document.

Voice Dream Reader could help with the necessary perseverance. It shows you the total reading time and you can see a circle progress through a timeline, orienting you to how much longer there is to go. This timeline could be another useful piece of information for revision purposes as well: if the text seems to drag and make unnecessary points, perhaps it could and should be shortened.

Caveats and conclusion

As mentioned above, here are the features I found most useful in Voice Dream Reader:

  •  the ability to highlight text, or turn off highlighting
  • control over the rate of speech
  • premium voices
  • integration with Dropbox

A few critiques and caveats: Trying to move back and forth in a document was awkward and difficult for me. I did figure out how to bookmark certain moments and navigate among them, which was helpful. One of the sources I read was a PDF with footnotes. Voice Dream Reader did not know how to handle footnotes other than to plow through them in linear fashion. When it came to the bottom of the main text on a page, it then went immediately into the footnotes below.

This linear reading of text and footnotes was both awkward and helpful in a strange way. It was awkward because citations aren’t sentences and they sound just plain ugly. But listening to the footnotes was actually kind of helpful as well because it gave me a moment to listen less attentively and jot some notes about the main text. I didn’t totally tune out from the footnotes; the reading was slow enough that I could make notes on interesting sources to investigate later.

Another caveat: I am positive there are many other apps and web apps and software programs with similar functionality. I did not do a comprehensive search into alternative text-to-speech platforms. (There is a free version of Voice Dream Reader called Voice Dream Reader Lite. Apparently it reads in 300-word segments, after which you have to press “play” again to continue. I did not try out the lite version.) I did find this helpful in-depth review of Voice Dream Reader.

Using Voice Dream Reader revealed some interesting possibilities for bringing speech and listening into the analysis and writing process. If you have used a text-to-speech app such as Voice Dream Reader for your own listening, reading, and writing — especially in a law-related context — please share thoughts in the comments.

*Sidebar if you’re interested: Patrick Ellis — a lawyer and scholar with some serious coding skills — measured the “simplicity” of an oral argument by Supreme Court advocate and former Solicitor General Paul Clement by converting the recording to text and quantifying its readability. But some listening scholarship suggests that listenability and readability are not as closely related as one might think because nonverbal cues, attitudes, and presentation issues affect listenability in a way that readability formulas don’t take into account. See Glenn, Emmert, and Emmert, A Scale for Measuring Listenability: The Factors that Determine Listening Ease and Difficulty, 9 Int’l J. Listening 44 (1995) (“too many variables intervene that prevent unqualified use of reading measurements to test and evaluate the listenability of oral texts”).

2 thoughts on “Listening, legal writing, and legal reading: there’s an app for that

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I am likely to try out the app. Martha Fineman taught me that the best way to edit a book is to read it out loud, and I now regularly read articles and other written content out loud for editing purposes. I love the idea of using an app like this to put some distance between me and what I’ve written. I use Dragon Dictation sometimes and it has a “read back” feature that I haven’t fully explored. I will now that your blog post has convinced me of the benefits of having a computer read my words to me. As always, very helpful info!

  2. […] Various software, browser apps, and websites can read text out loud. Hearing an entire case read out loud, rather than silently reading it on the page, is a big investment of time. But intensely engaging with one or two cases this way could assist learning, especially for beginners. To use one common error students make when learning the structure of court opinions, where does the review of precedent end and the court’s own decision begin? I believe that listening to the case could help them slow down and recognize the different components of the opinion. […]

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