Today, I’m reposting an essay on the differences between writing and speaking. This is its first appearance here. I wanted to retrieve and salvage it from a site that I’ve let go fallow. I also wanted to re-read it to see if it needed revisions. It did. Some new insights surfaced during the revisit. They are included in this version.
Initial Comparisons And Contrasts
One of the most satisfying aspects of writing and posting something daily is…you guessed it…writing and posting something daily. Writing is artificial in comparison to speaking. What do I mean? When you speak, it is mostly stream-of-consciousness. You usually have the chance to course-correct, amend, update, or renounce utterances on the fly. Writing offers no spur-of-the-moment, or after-the-fact opportunity to communicate, or connect. Writers front-load all the potential connection and communication when they publish.
Speaking and writing both propagate words into the world. But the spoken word is often uttered with less painstaking than the words of a careful writer. The impermanence of speech provides the pretext be more free-flowing and off the cuff, less careful, and less precise, overall.
And sometimes, the speaker’s emotional state produces utterances best left unsaid. These emotion-fueled quips, briefly heard, pass into the ether more quickly than if they had been written for posterity. But just because the sound of a spoken word passes when the air stops vibrating, doesn’t mean the potential impact on the recipient disappears.
A Writer Is An Observer
These instances of emotion engagement provide the clearest glimpse of how wonderfully artificial writing is. Regardless of emotional state, a writer cannot help but observe themselves and their words as they produce them. They literally appear on the page or screen at the writer’s behest. The entire process, including edits, constructs an idea representing the writer’s mind at that particular moment in time. The writer observes…every. single. word.
How often do you observe yourself while speaking? Are you consciously aware of the you doing the talking? Do you double-check each spoken word? Emotions usually lock the observer self in the closet. The active, emoting self takes over, and sometimes talks itself right into a ditch. There is no editing, no consideration. Yes, an emotional rant may be a snapshot of the speaker’s mind, but not a carefully crafted one.
Certainly, there are boors who love to hear themselves speak. They view themselves as the smartest person in the room, and the only one with anything to say worth hearing. Some people can’t stand it when they don’t have the floor. But good writers are also readers who have been humbled by the exquisite prose or wordcraft of another author. They know the feeling of awe, and envy, and humility that comes from reading the words of a master. A good writer knows, at best, he is only making a contribution to the vast collection of knowledge. He isn’t thinking he has had the final word.
Writers And Intimates Revise
Writing is really, rewriting. At least good writing is. This process of revision, and the active observation of the words being typed, modified, and deleted is what makes writing so crafted and ”artificial” by comparison, and such an abstraction from spontaneous, ”uncrafted” verbal language. When is the last time you got to delete a word you spoke?
Intimate friends and companions “re-speak” and revise for the sake of clarity. Intimacy is the highest form of communication. The foundation of which is understanding and being understood. Such communication is justifiably precious. So often, some “re-speaking” goes a long way to preserve and strengthen it. But this kind of care doesn’t normally accompany casual daily conversation.
Of course, both speaking and writing are ”sequential” forms of communication. Each word, whether spoken or written, follows a clear start-to-finish linear progression. The visual arts – painting, dance, video, and certainly the art of music are also “artificial” forms of communication, like writing is, but they do not present information in a strictly linear format.
Writing Attempts To Achieve Understanding With An Economy Of Words
That striving for understanding is where speaking and writing share the highest common goal. If you speak to someone and you are careful to read their body language, you can make observations about whether they are hearing you and understanding you. And you have the opportunity for feedback. A good speaker can fashion understanding on the fly. Not so with writing. All the understanding (or lack thereof) is submitted with the draft. Which is another aspect that makes writing artificial in comparison to speaking.
A speaker is at liberty to exhaust all the words he wishes to say about the subject of conversation for as long as he has the attention of his hearers. Many speakers are like this and will attempt to say all that can possibly be said. A writer will respect his reader’s time and intellect so as to use the fewest words possible, an art in itself.
If you’re writing, you’re only present in your reader’s head in the vaguest way. Your words are all you have. There is no possibility of reading body language. So, there is a lot of re-writing, re-thinking, restructuring. This ”artifice” is what makes it challenging. It also makes it very rewarding as a skill to be honed.
Writers Treat Readers As Equals Worthy Of Respect
The attempt to respect your reader enough to anticipate their responses is very human and ”connective”. Writing gives the author the benefit of clarifying his views, thinking through an idea, looking at the arguments from a different angle, and the other person’s (the reader’s) point of view. That’s a benefit that writing can grant to anyone.
All this makes the writer more considerate. A good writer will view the reader as ”like himself”; an intelligent person with the ability to comprehend thought and apprehend truth. While it may be possible to ”talk at” someone, it is nearly impossible to ”write at” them. And doing so would tarnish the bond a writer hopes to maintain with his invisible reader.
As I’ve written something for public consumption each day for nearly three months straight, I notice my own thinking is becoming more disciplined and streamlined. Even when I attempt to communicate my thoughts verbally. I still have a meandering, curious, serendipitous mind when it comes to exploring and indulging my interests, but I’ve gained a structure when it comes times to tell about what I’ve been grokking on. This is a good thing. No one likes endless rabbit trails and non-sequiturs in conversation, and certainly not in decent writing.
Daily writing and publishing continues to help clarify and streamline my thoughts. I’m still not as self-observant when speaking as I am when typing and editing. I need to pause before opening my mouth, the way I do when sitting at my keyboard. And whether writing, or speaking, I need to so so in the neatest, clearest, easiest manner to understand. I have a long way to go, lots of words to cut, and I look forward to getting better.