"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Writing is not like Speech

October 25th, 2014 by

Writing and speech are too often compared, mistaken for each other even. We consider too often their apparent similarities.

Too many of my students claim to write as they speak, and if they don’t speak well, this will come out in their writing. Consider that speech has no punctuation, only a series of pauses and rises in voice tone. Many students use commas for pauses. But trying to capture the spoken voice in the most literal terms usually results in bad parody that is hardly readable. The writer quickly outruns the usefulness of commas, italics, and capitalizing everything, and emoticons are a sorry replacement for words.

Certainly, writing and speech are related as a progression of events might be. As early life unfolds, we learn to talk first to our caring parents in the manners we have heard from them, and then in the presence of adults with degrees and red pens, we commit to writing as the capturing of those sounds we have long consonanted and voweled for our nurturers. After the shapes of the letters, rhetoric teaches the open views to planning for speaking, its organizations, its rootedness in the values of others.

I admit that I am comfortable with writing in a way that I will never be with talking. Friends tell me this is because I am an introvert. This is true. With writing, there is less at stake. Writing is not like speech at all, in fact. It is like a long night in the company of friends who will recognize that nothing is finalized yet; speaking is the courtroom trial where once a statement is uttered, there is no returning. The old world is lost. There is no bringing the armies back. As Nancy Sommers has noted, there is no revision.

With writing I find my relaxation, a bit of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

I find my audience there. I find those who would share and even delight in that. When I’m in a conversation, well, all of those bets are off, and it is a performance with no rehearsal, as someone waits for me, and this waiting feels like the glare of a blank page, with an imaginary cursor blinking in my interlocutor’s head. Were it a true blank page, I could free write, or free-talk. I could fill in that page with doodles and irrelevancies. I could tell the first joke that comes to mind.

But because it is a human being awaiting an answer, I need to be both frank and accurate, without any play.

I’m not sure, but this may mean that I have not always talked in the company of friends. Maybe if I had, I would feel differently. But I don’t. They don’t want to play as they do with the writing. A joke may just land me in their bad graces, where I seem to have uttered myself most of the time.

No, they are not the same. Talking, speech is forever messy; writing can be cleaned up.

Posted in Uncategorized| 5 Comments


Comment by Joseph Bentz on October 28, 2014 at 9:31 am

This is so true. I think the reason a lot of beginning writers think speech and writing are the same is that some of the best writing does sound conversational. But it isn’t literally the same as conversation. It might have taken that writer many drafts to capture that friendly conversational tone.

Comment by Caroline on October 28, 2014 at 8:42 pm

“Talking, speech is forever messy; writing can be cleaned up.”

Well said.

Comment by Barbara Hayes on October 28, 2014 at 10:07 pm

Well said, indeed.
Like you, Tom, I am far more comfortable with writing than with speaking. For me, writing is like drawing with pencil, while speaking is in ink. I never liked to draw with ink.

Comment by Maria Eugenia Mayer on November 1, 2014 at 2:05 pm

“He talks in prose” is how an ironic friend of mine describes a certain author!

Comment by Tom on November 1, 2014 at 2:27 pm

That’s really quite funny, Maria. Thanks.

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