Thinking About Writing

by

John Tagg


Writing Is Unnatural

 

Writing is an unnatural activity. Unlike talking, which all normal children learn on their own in the process of growing up, writing needs to be taught and requires the use of tools. Think about it. You can carry on a conversation any time and any place. You don't need any special equipment. The medium of speech is the air we breathe, and speech itself is just a different way of breathing. You do the whole job with just your own body. Speaking is natural. But in order to write, you need specialized tools. You need a tool to write with--a pen or pencil or chisel or stylus. You need something to write on--paper or bark or stone. But the most important tool we use in writing is one we often don't think of as a tool at all. You need a set of recognizable symbols to represent words--hieroglyphics or ideograms or, by far the most familiar and common example, a phonetic alphabet. The alphabet is a set of tools. Unlike the words we speak, the letters of the alphabet had to be invented by people. You learned to speak your native language by just hanging around and hearing it. But when you learned to read and write you had to sit down and study--first to learn to recognize the letters and associate them with the correct sounds and then to produce them yourself with pencil and paper.

Stop for a moment and think about the differences between writing and talking, because those differences account for much that is difficult--or appears to be difficult--about writing.

First, writing is much slower than talking. It took me four times as long (44 seconds) to type the sentence that makes up the previous paragraph as it took me to read it in a normal speaking voice (11 seconds). And I do a lot of typing. Try the experiment yourself. Even with the wonderful tools available to us today--word processors and spell checkers--writing takes more time. Why is that important? One reason is that our brains are conditioned to work at the speed of talk, to react experientially to changing circumstances and very quick feedback. Writing makes us spread out the process of expressing ourselves. That can be very uncomfortable, and it can require us to learn a whole new way of experiencing language. To do so takes a lot of practice.

Second, we always--or almost almost always--talk to other people. But we write, in an important sense, alone. When I speak or listen I am usually looking at someone else, but when I write I am looking at myself or at what I am writing. Most of us learned to talk by looking at other people talk while we listened to them talk, and to this day when we speak to someone we are usually looking at the person we are speaking to. We have learned to handle listening without seeing the speaker--we can talk on the telephone or listen to the radio. But even then, we can imagine the expressions that accompany the speaker's voice. Why is television more popular than radio? Because it is more involving and natural to be able to see the person we are listening to. When we speak or listen, we usually have direct input from another person through two senses: sight and hearing. And it is dynamic, rapidly changing input, at the speed of natural speech. When we read or write we are not looking at another person at all and we are not hearing anything that's relevant to the meaning of the words. In reading, if we can read fairly rapidly, we can imagine the speaker speaking; we can "hear" in our minds what we can't hear in our ears. But when we write we have to watch ourselves writing. Because writing requires using complex tools (pen, paper, alphabet), we must look at ourselves doing it in order to get it right. Try this experiment: write longhand at a normal speed with your eyes closed or holding a piece of paper over your hand to hide the paper you're writing on. Many people cannot write at a normal speed under these circumstances. Those who can often produce a childish-looking scrawl that is hardly legible. If you are a touch typist, of course, you don't need to look at the keyboard as you type, but you do need to constantly monitor what you are typing on the screen or page. (An interesting exercise, by the way, is to type for a while on your word processor with the monitor turned off so that you can't see what you're writing. I'll tell you later why this is a good thing to do, but you'll also notice that it's very difficult to make yourself do it at first, because you are conditioned to see what you are writing as you write it.) The fact that you do not get input from other people while you are writing means that writing requires a much higher degree of concentration than talking, listening, or even reading. That is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that writing can seem a lonely business, one in which you have to wait a long time to get the feedback that would come instantly if you were talking to someone.

The third difference between writing and speaking is that writing is more permanent, and therefore more public, than spoken words. When you speak, as soon as the words are out of your mouth, they are gone; they exist only in the mind of the hearer. So speech, being so impermanent, is very changeable. If I don't say quite what I mean the first time, I just say it again, a little differently. If the person I'm talking to looks confused, I'll explain what I meant. If you've ever read a direct transcript of someone speaking you might have noticed how many fragments and false starts are commonplace in speaking. We don't notice this very often as listeners because we are so used to it. As listeners and as speakers, we automatically "erase" errors and misstatements when they are corrected. When we speak, we are constantly "revising" what we say. It's easy to do. When we write, on the other hand, there is a record of what we've written that never changes and that is the same for all readers. Anyone who gets ahold of what we've written will see exactly the same thing. This permanence is one of the great strengths of writing. It preserves our ideas and allows us to spread them to as many people as can read them. It is no accident that the first great civilizations grew up at the time that writing was invented. Without writing, human communication is severely limited. I cannot convey what I think to more people than can gather in the sound of my voice. But with writing, I can make a permanent record of what I have said, and my words can travel to the ends of the earth. Writing made law and literature and government as we understand them possible. And it is exactly the quality of permanence that did all this: the fact that even after the writer leaves or dies, the words survive.

So there are at least three important differences between speaking and writing. Speaking is faster; writing takes more time. Speaking is social, done in the presence of other people; writing is in a sense private, requiring us to focus on the act of writing itself. Speaking is transitory; writing is permanent. We should think about these differences as we try to understand and grapple with the task of becoming better writers.

One conclusion we can draw is that writing is, in some ways, inherently difficult. That is to say that the difficulty is caused by the very nature of the act of writing, so we will always encounter that difficulty. Writing, in this sense, is not like walking or talking or driving a car. These things become easy with enough practice. Writing is more like playing basketball or chess or the guitar. It will always remain difficult even after you have done it a lot, in the sense that just doing it well takes much effort and concentration. This is bad news and good news. The bad news is that if we are expecting to get to some point where we can pass some test or some class, master some technique or gimmick, or reach some level of practice where writing will no longer require real effort, then we are bound to be disappointed. The good news is that almost all the tasks that we seek out for their own sake in life are difficult in this way. No one devotes her life to casual walking. But basketball, playing the guitar, or writing can become a career or even an obsession. In the long run, only inherently difficult tasks are interesting and involving.

If you find writing difficult and feel that you shouldn't or that you are alone or defective in having this experience, you can relax. It's difficult for you; it's difficult for me; it was difficult for Henry David Thoreau, James Joyce and William Faulkner. You are normal.

 

Meeting the Challenge

 

People who want to master any complex skill have a similar experience. If what you are looking for is a way to get results without any effort, you are wasting your time. But there are ways you can make your efforts count for more. Some of those things are suggested by the characteristics of writing we have been discussing.

Since talking, listening, and reading are all easier than writing, you should use them to prepare for writing. It is much harder to decide how to say something before you have said it. And it is definitely harder to decide how to say something in writing that you have never said in conversation. Talk to people about what you believe. Test your ideas in the faster, less permanent medium of speech before you try to set them down in the slower, more permanent medium of writing. Read all you can about what you want to write about, and then talk to someone about it. Remember that you will have no chance to see how people react when you are writing to them, but you do have a chance to see how they react when you are talking to them.

Use the skills you have to help you to develop new ones. It is easier for all of us to talk than to write. So even when you are writing, talk it out. Try to say what you think you want to say out loud, then write it down. As you write, stop to read what you have written aloud, so you can hear it. Talking and hearing bring parts of your brain into the task that will help you to focus on what you are saying and achieve the level of concentration you need. If you find your concentration wandering while writing, read what you have already written aloud, and then imagine you are talking with someone about it and carry on an imaginary conversation. Talking will help to ease you into writing in a more concentrated way. As far as I can tell, very experienced writers have developed the ability to "hear" what they write, so that for them the act of writing is closer to the act of speech than it is for the rest of us.

Assume that writing will always take longer than you expect it to. Having an idea and writing the idea are different processes. Writing takes longer than talking. And because we lack the feedback when writing that keeps moving us along when talking, we are going to stop and start much more when writing than we would if we were explaining our ideas to someone. And because writing is permanent, we are often afraid to put our ideas down on paper. All of these things, which are normal and inevitable, mean that if we try to force ourselves to write fast, we probably won't write at all. If you think that the only way you can write is under a deadline and so put off writing until the last minute, you do yourself a great disservice. You have no idea what you could do if you gave yourself the time to do it.

On the other hand, while we cannot force ourselves to write fast, if we can let ourselves write fast we will find that writing seems smoother and easier and more natural. The difference here is the difference between "force" and "let." When we are thinking most experientially, when we are getting ideas out in the open most effectively, is when we experience writing as most like talking. It won't be as fast as talking, but it may seem even faster when we are doing it. What slows us down is that we are all afraid of the permanence of writing. We are afraid of making mistakes, of saying something that we didn't really mean, of appearing foolish. We can gain some control over this fear if we realize that we have some control over how permanent and how public our writing really is. We can keep some of our writing fairly private, letting people we trust look at it and give us feedback. We can test our writing before we make it public. If I know that the first draft of my essay will be seen only by me or only by a few people, I can relax and say whatever I want. I can let myself write my first draft fast because it is private. I can always fix it later.

 

Writing Is Natural

 

Because writing is private when we produce it, we can sometimes believe that it can remain private. Much of the writing we do in school seems this way. We write only for the teacher, and we trust the teacher never to breathe a word. In fact, much of the student writing that I have seen as a teacher was apparently written by people who didn't expect anybody else to ever read it, or at least pay any attention to it. Writing that is just a classroom exercise, that has no real audience, is a waste of everyone's time. Why?

Well, ask yourself this: What good is writing, potentially, to you? The answer has to be, in some form, that writing is a way you can influence people: change their behavior, open their minds, bring them around to your way of thinking, make them happy, make them angry, get them to ask questions, get them to answer questions. Writing will be important to you in your life because it is a way for you to shape your world. But it can do that only if people read and understand it. It will never make much difference to you whether you can produce a well formed sentence, unless the people who you want to influence read and understand that sentence.

What I said above about writing being unnatural is true in a way, but in a deeper sense writing is completely natural. It's different than speaking, but underneath all of the differences, we write for the same reason we speak: we want others to understand us and we want to understand them. If we emphasize how different writing is so much that we miss its fundamental purpose, then we miss the whole point. Writing is improved speech. It is harder because it is better. It takes longer because it can carry more meaning. It requires more concentration because it carries more weight. It is more permanent because it is tested and refined. Writing is harder than talking because it counts for more, not less.

That is why your writing will be published this semester. Because it does count. Because it's real. It will change people--you and others. It will make a difference.


This section has been translated into Russian. The translation is here.

1997 John Tagg


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