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Why Writing Needs Speaking
Writer's block isn't what you think it is.
I’ve been away from Regress Studies for about a month, because my wife gave birth to a beautiful bouncing boy. The Institute for Progress, where I edit by day, has given me a generous paternity leave, so I’ve spent recent weeks in a dreamstate, staring at the little man. It’s been amazing, but also humbling: my dreams of being marvelously productive while holding an infant in one hand have been mostly dashed. I did plant the back porch with an herb garden and organized most of the house. But very little writing has been accomplished.
However, I have done some reading about writing, which seems almost the same thing. Below are my notes on Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, by Peter Elbow, which makes a tremendously useful and counterintuitive argument about what’s good in writing.
The TLDR is that we all have a tremendous facility with language, which we exercise every day, and that many of our struggles with writing occur because we don’t leverage that facility. We treat writing as a field we’re completely unfamiliar with, even though we unconsciously communicate with great clarity every time we speak to each other. And we can use speech to overcome all kinds of complications and difficulties in writing.
Features of writing and speaking
There are, of course, real differences between speaking and writing. Speaking operates in the medium of time, but (mostly) not in space. That said, speaking is bounded by space in interesting ways. Many of our new tools for online orality feel weird because of the lack of this boundary. We’re used to a kind of spatial interaction, and a knowledge of who is being spoken to in a given space, that we don’t get over Twitter Spaces or Clubhouse. (Some researcher friends are very interested in these dynamics.)
Writing operates across time (it persists) and in physical space (on the page and in distance between writer and reader). Some cultural historians describe the advent of written language as a kind of inducement to schizophrenia: suddenly, someone can talk to you when no one is there.
Although everything that can be spoken can be written, and vice versa, speech and writing are different linguistic products, with modal differences. In particular, we use a broader range of words in writing. Sentences tend to be longer and more structurally complex. Writing tends to be more explicit, in that it has complete idea units. It relies less on shared situation or background knowledge, is less personally involved than speech, and is characterized by more new information than speech.
Says Elbow, “Writing is spatial and visual, and this helps it do things that are hard or impossible in audible temporal speech.” For instance, writing helps people step outside of their language and see it as an external object. Additionally, “even though writing puts language into external visible space, it also turns out to be a medium that enhances privacy.” Writing can conserve speech and therefore tends to function as a conservative force, according to Elbow, although this seems contestable: oral cultures too are by definition cultures that conserve speech.
Help me out here.
The affordances of writing
Writing doesn’t just help us to create complex meanings. As a physical medium and process, it actively encourages us to. We feel this pressure of absent readers who don’t share our context. “When we have to spell out what we leave implied in conversation, we have to work out our thinking more clearly. Our words might have seemed clear and convincing to live listeners, but the process of writing out our thoughts often shows us a big hole or contradiction that we didn’t notice in speaking.”
“Just as writing gives writers time to create complex meanings in language, it also gives readers time to take as long as they need to re-read and work out and ponder complex meanings. Indeed, writing helps readers surpass writers in the complexity game. While speech is valuable for its “vocality” (the ability to carry meaning with intonation), writing is valuable for its polyvocality. Readers can interpret multiple meanings or voices of a text. “See for example the sentence ‘I didn’t think he stole the money,’ which can be spoken with multiple different intonations or emphases, but only one at a time. The same sentence, written, can carry all those emphases at once, and a reader can interpret or read into it.
Here’s the Encyclopedia Britannica, articulating the benefits of writing incredibly clearly:
Writing allows exactly repeatable statements to be circulated widely and preserved. It allows readers to scan a text back and forth and to study, compare, and interpret at their leisure. It allows writers to deliberate over word choice and to construct lists, tables, recipes, and indexes. It fosters an objectified sense of time, a linear conception of space. It separates the message from the author and from the context in which it was written, thereby ‘decontextualizing,’ or universalizing the meaning of, language…
The problem with writing
The permanence of writing is the traditional reason we uphold writing. But it also leads to a strong intuition we all operate within: the written word is more real or authentic than the spoken version of the word. And it can create a hyper-awareness in us that makes writing incredibly difficult and forced. Here’s Elbow, citing another researcher.
“We usually notice the words—as words—more often when we read a text than when we listen to speech. The difference is most pronounced… when we are learning to read—trying to say the words one at a time and even sounding them out, letter by letter. Olson argues that we never fully lose that awareness even when we become fluent and automatic readers and think of ourselves as ‘not seeing the words.’ And when a text causes us even the slightest difficulty, we go back to consciousness of seeing words.”
For those of us working on improving our writing, it’s useful to meditate on this feature of textuality. When we read a good book or text, we often talk about being “caught in the spell.” There’s a rich history of meanings behind that phrase, in particular a history of belief about the magic power of words, spells, charms, emblems. When we write, we are often attempting to leverage that power of orality, using the tools of textuality.1 We want to use text for our purposes: to clarify our thinking, to help us see words as words and choose the most potent ones, to fill in the gaps of our lines of thoughts, and so on. But often we want our readers to have a different experience: not to see the words as words, not to parse and nitpick, not to consciously notice where we used one word and could have used another. We want readers to be carried by our words. “Really good writers can… create real presence.”
“The visibility of words as objects ‘spells the death of word magic or, more precisely, name magic.’ Words are no longer emblems; words are now distinguished from both things and from names of things; words as linguistic entities come into consciousness. It becomes feasible to think of the meanings of words independently from the things they designate.”
Once we start thinking of the meanings of words independently from the things they designate, we risk all kinds of writers block: is this the right word, am I making sense, did I articulate that? When we speak, by contrast, we don’t experience this in the moment. When we decide we need to rearticulate something, we do it on the fly, almost without conscious awareness.
The power of speaking
To fight this hyper-awareness, says Elbow, we can use the power of speech. He gives all kinds of exercises and techniques, but the gist is that we should treat talking as our first draft tool. Whether it’s transcribing a voice memo, or talking to yourself as you stare at the blinking cursor, Elbow wants you to be constantly throwing words on the page in the way you speak: without excessive regard for word choice or sentence completion, loose, free, natural. This is the raw material that you can then shape into more literary text. But you have to allow yourself to write in speech first.
Elbow suggests using low-stakes writing to help improve high-stakes writing. That is, he’ll often have students do low-stakes assignments, and then point to that level of clarity and ease as the target he wants them to hit in revisions for their high stakes assignments. “Push for that clear lively direct voice that you’ve already shown me in your low-stakes writing.”
He also calls for us to treat more of our writing as private writing, not planned for public consumption. Even if you think you only write in public, most of the writing you do for that public writing doesn’t actually see the light of day. Once you realize that most of your “serious writing” is actually private, high-stakes writing gets more adventuresome. You can try our dubious thoughts, little comments to yourself, and not let anxiety infect the process of putting down words.
I’m going to be stealing many of his techniques in my own coaching/editing practice, and in my writing. And I’m curious whether his account of what writers block is rings true for you as it does for me. I find that my blockages are typically about an over- or hyper-awareness of words, and that finding other modes of communication to prime the pump can often get rid of them.
This is obviously a vast oversimplification. There are all kinds of writing we do where we want to leverage those other features of textuality. For ex: when a journalist quotes “a source familiar with the congressman’s thinking,” she may be trying to hint that her on-background source is the congressman himself. Straussian texts are written to transmit messages that are only legible through a careful text orientation. But I flag these features to make the point that how we write text and how we want text to be read can be entirely different experiences.