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Literature, Poetry, and Books

On Writing and Speaking

This NYTimes essay offers some thoughtful reflections about the oft noted problem of the disjunction between the ability to write and the ability to speak.  It is very often the case, for example, that wonderful conversationalists and fascinating lecturers are poor to middling writers.  This is usually a startling revelation to new students of the phenomenon (especially if they are writers) because the common sense of the matter suggests that if one can talk with ease it should be little more than simple translation when putting it to paper.  But it is not so.  These writing students often only fully come to appreciate the problem when they try to reverse engineer it.  For the best writers frequently find themselves tongue-tied and are confused when they discover that they cannot deliver a lecture with anything like the grace they have acquired with a pen (or a keyboard) at hand. 

This is not always the case, of course.  There are some particularly gifted human beings who seem to have been born with facility in both modes of intellectual engagement.  Mark Twain, for example, was a lauded lecturer in addition to being a peerless writer . . . though his example seems, really, more a proof of the rule than an exception.  For he suffered when he had to speak and labored at it so that his ability in that line was really more of a testament to his force of character than it was a mark from the gods.  We do not have video tapes from any of his lectures, of course.  Yet, while I certainly would delight in seeing those tapes if we did have them, I cannot imagine that the pleasure they would afford could surpass even the least compelling chapter in Huck Finn.  Books are, after all, permanent friends.  But the "writing" of the best lecturers is often a poor substitute for the real thing.  It beats not having any record at all of their genius.  But it is ever so much better now that we can bottle their talk and give them, too, something of permanence.

Discussions - 8 Comments

I still have high hopes for the talk by P.J. O'Rourke, but if the article you mention turns out to be prescient then at least I get free pizza.

Today's class included a discussion of an H.L. Mencken essay on writing, "Literature and the Schoolma'm" ( wherein he says that anyone who can communicate by speaking can communicate by writing. Most of my students disagreed. Of course, this was my class of students who are either clever at something other than the English language or clever at nothing at all. Mencken also says it is impossible to teach people to write; they either can or cannot. He might be right, but since I am being paid to "schoolma'm", I will soldier on.

Yes, I, too, would have loved to hear Twain, or Lincoln -- what do you think? But I really wonder at the reputed ability of a Webster to keep an audience spellbound for hours.

When we speak, communication occurs via multiple channels that don't exist when we write: tempo, pitch, stress, pauses, volume and gesture. As a rule, we have instant feedback. So it's not surprising that some who write well are poor speakers and vice versa. When we write something intended to be read, for example, both the reader and the writer may ignore the rhythms and stresses that make a Shakespearean soliloquy or a good sermon so powerful as speech.

The differences between speech and writing may vary among languages. For example, it may be possible in a language with a freer syntax than is the case in English to convey information through syntax in both speech and writing that is conveyed through stress, pitch and rhythm in English speech and through other means in written English.

One who speaks fluently but reads infrequently may find it difficult to write well without a significant amount of feedback and coaching. In fact, it is probably not realistic to expect students with little exposure to good writing to learn to write well.

That lack of reading is just the problem for students who are poor writers. I tell them; they shrug; I make their papers bleed with feedback.

Yes, speech offers more kinetic context. Does English lack a flexibility that other languages have? Given so many words, doesn't English have an advantage there? I know Italian best and that is much better spoken - expressed aloud and in motion, as if giving a performance - than written.

Re: the Italian being better heard in spoken form than read in written form

That very much depends upon who is doing the speaking and why they are speaking to you . . . trust me!


Word order is much more flexible in highly inflected languages. These languages convey meaning through word order. We accomplish the same in spoken English by moving the stress from one word to another. This isn't achieved in written English by means of stress, which is invisible in the written language, but by other means.

I can't even read Italian without imagined flourishes and arpeggios. I suppose I read the English of some authors like that, too. I am reading Digital Barbarism and Helprin's prose has an almost musical urgency to it. Returning to his bookmarked page, I try to find my footing in his tumbing prose and then give up, finding the "how" of what he says much more engaging than the "what" of his contention.

Many of my students are from immigrant families and I have wondered if that is why their word order is often confused. They have one heck of a time knowing the correct, meaningful, preposition, as well.

Another thing, as people are actually writing more (though saying less) through email and texting, the inclination to simplify our language is sensible, but unsatisfying. In email, even very well-educated friends, are resorting to emoticons, and the use of symbols, as well as varied font types and sizes to expand intended meaning in a brief way. I wonder if publishing is changing (I may read the wrong books, or I would know) and if books and articles will come to use such things.

Helprin writes about how the writing hand had a voice that is removed by type, and of the expression in hand-written script that is lost. People innovate and the typed line does not always have to be as dull as what we write in these blog-boxes.

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