Why Talking Seems Easier
For most young children talking comes before learning to write or type words, even misspelled words, so at the stage of childhood where children can speak but are not yet able to write much, even if they know what they might want to write, obviously speaking will be easier. However, for many, if not most people, talking is generally still easier even after their basic physical ability to write down or type words has caught up with their ability to say them. And talking is generally still easier for most people even when their writing vocabulary exceeds their speaking vocabulary, as it does for many or most decently educated adults.
And I do not believe that this is just a matter of speed and convenience. While it is true that talking is, for most purposes, quicker than writing(2), it is not the slowness of writing that makes writing difficult in those cases where it is difficult. It would, of course, be time-consuming, laborious, and frustrating for two or more people in proximity to write messages to each other in a conversation rather than to simply speak to each other, but if they had to do it, it would only be slower than talking, not more difficult to know what to write; one would write simply what one would say. People do this all the time when passing notes back and forth during a business meeting, a class lecture, or a church sermon. Writing such notes is a situation in which writing is not more difficult than talking. But if one were to try to write an essay or book report simply by dictating it instead of writing or typing it, it would be neither easier nor faster for most people because the problem is not that it takes longer to write than to talk.
It is my contention that writing is different from, and generally more difficult than, talking because writing tends to occur under conditions which make it more difficult to know what to say and how to say it. Writing tends to be done under conditions that yield no natural or spontaneous introduction and that require more detail and clarity, generally because there is little feedback or opportunity to respond to any lack of understanding, misunderstandings, or disagreement. In writing something, one normally has to be sure all the necessary information, and perhaps significant implications, are contained in the text in a meaningful and lucid way, because that may be all the reader has to go by. Writing usually demands greater understanding of what is required for approaching or introducing a subject, for making it clear, and for being reasonably complete about it. Because conversation allows immediate feedback and clarifications or corrections where necessary, good writing is generally a very different activity from merely transcribing to paper words spoken (or that would be spoken) in a conversation or ideas that occur in your mind - with a few exceptions I will point out shortly. The reason it would not help one's writing generally just to be able to speak to someone who is taking dictation, nor to a computer word processor with voice recognition is that it is not the physical part of writing that makes writing difficult; it is knowing what to write -- what information needs to be conveyed and what does that clearly and intelligibly, and, where important, interestingly. It is difficult enough to write because of that, but it is even more difficult to write knowing that, because one then feels pressure to try to do all those things well. That pressure adds to the difficulty.
There is also the pressure of knowing that writing leaves a record which may survive for some time and be able to be seen by many people, giving them an impression of the author's character and personality. So one tends to be careful, sometimes overly cautious. Moreover, writing tends to reflect the ability to communicate when one has supposedly had time to plan and perfect what one is saying. People expect writing to be polished or finished in some way. One can "talk off the top of one's head" or "think out loud", taking back or amending whatever does not seem to have been accurate or expressed very well earlier. In conversation one may even contradict oneself and abandon a position one had earlier stated. But "writing off the top of one's head" or "thinking on paper (computer)" would only be reasonable for "jotting down ideas" or working on a draft. Once a piece of writing gets to where it is shown, there are expectations that it is certain ways fully formed, not self-contradictory, and at least sufficiently polished for the person and reason one is showing it. This can make it difficult to write something whose best order, or any good order, is not clear, even as one is revising. While sometimes one might just delete a word or sentence or paragraph that is troublesome, there are some pieces of writing that are so integrated that changing any part of it is extremely difficult to do; it may even involve writing the whole piece again from the beginning.
All this is sufficiently daunting that when writing, if one is not overflowing with ideas to begin with that one cannot wait to get on the screen or paper, it is too easy to stop after every sentence or two or every paragraph and perhaps to be unhappy with, or overly critical about, the lines already written. Or one can have writer's block from the beginning, not knowing how to approach the subject in a way that seems interesting and worthwhile. Although conversation can, of course, have a difficult time starting or can dry up as well, if it does, it is usually because of not knowing what to say or talk about in the given situation, not because one is trying to review and perfect what s/he is thinking before actually presenting it.
With exceptions I will explain shortly, there are two major general kinds of differences between the conditions in which spoken conversation tends to take place and the conditions in which written communication tends to take place. Each of these differences promotes difficulties for writing. (1) In spoken conversations there is normally more proximity in time and/or space between the participants than there is in written communications. This allows more immediate, helpful feedback and audio or visual cues about what needs to be said next. And it allows there to be a common setting that makes talking about things in that setting easier. (2) Written works are often more formal in nature, and/or often addressed to a larger audience, many of whom are strangers or distant acquaintances. Formality requires remarks to be "polished" and as articulate or eloquent as possible.
There is a common element in these two situations: both distance and formality tend to preclude certain kinds of cues and responses that help one know what needs to be said and that lead naturally into saying it.
A significant exception to there being a difference between the spoken word and the written word is the text of a prepared (formal) speech, lecture style presentation, or even prepared formal brief remarks, such as a toast. The problem of preparing a speech is normally more like the problems attendant to writing than to talking. Not only are speeches formal and to a diverse group of people whose initial common understanding about the topic is difficult to know, but even though there is spatial-temporal proximity, that proximity is negated by the (often arbitrarily imposed) lack of (permitted) interaction between the speaker and audience. Moreover, speeches are usually delivered in sterile settings, barren of interesting or relevant phenomena about which to comment or begin a discussion. The introduction or approach to the topic of the speech must be part of the speech itself. Someone who has difficulty preparing and delivering a speech may communicate much better with his/her audience during a discussion session following the formal remarks, because questions both introduce a topic that needs to be addressed and gives direction about what needs to be said about it.
There are situations or conditions besides formal speeches (or other prepared remarks) in which some of the limiting or inhibiting elements of correspondence inflict themselves upon verbal conversation, making conversation more difficult than normal. These make for minor exceptions to their being a difference between the spoken word and the written word: (1) phone conversations, (2) a conversation with a child, (3) conversations with a sight-impaired person, (4) instructional conversations, (5) recorded audio messages (including audio/video tape, film, etc.) one is making, sending, or leaving for, others, (6) conversations with a stranger, particularly under somewhat formal or stressful circumstances, as in meeting the parents of a sweetheart, (7) and conversations with someone who is not particularly responsive. In these sorts of situations generally one has less immediate and helpful feedback to guide one in deciding what to say, one has to give more detail than one might give in normal conversation, and one has to figure out which details are important to give. In some of these cases one also has to initiate comments without the benefit of an experience that leads to a natural or spontaneous comment.
Oppositely, there are also circumstances in which writing is something like talking in a conversation - computer chat or sending instant messages back and forth by modem. In this circumstance, the correspondents are not separated by time, just by distance. It is pretty similar to a phone conversation except that you cannot readily interrupt others to make timely comments in those cases where that would be efficient and appropriate. Also, the note passing during classes, meetings, and church, mentioned previously are somewhat similar to conversation, more so than computer or phone dialogues, since there is not a distance (i.e., setting or environment) difference; in a male teacher's classroom, for example, a note can be passed, while the teacher may be sitting on his desk with his legs crossed that says "His socks don't match" and it will be fairly obvious the note is about the teacher.
Knowing how much detail to give in formal or typical writing, or in conversations of the above seven sorts, is the difficult part because it is not easy to know what the other person does not know and needs to be told, or it is easy to forget that the other person does not see or have a way of knowing some of the information that you simply see or have in the back of your mind. I have an acquaintance who is 96 years old, and who is taken places by her daughter, who assists her walking because she cannot see very well. The first time I tried assisting her in this way, I helped her out of the car and took her by the arm. As we got to the curb of the parking lot on our way to the entrance of the building we were going to, I stepped up but the woman did not because she could not see the curb. She tripped, though I had a firm enough grip on her that she did not fall. It turned out that one has to tell her when she is getting to a place to step up or down, or where there is some obstacle or barrier because she cannot always see them. Writing to someone who is not in the same environment with you multiplies that same sort of problem many times because you have to let them know all the relevant things you "see" or think in your mind as you take them on essentially a mental journey with you.
Since writing usually requires more information to be included, if one is not accustomed to providing such additional information, or does not know what kind of information needs to be provided, one will find writing more difficult. In writing, one generally has to provide an introduction and a context because the person one is writing is normally separated from you by space or time, and usually both. One has to set the stage verbally because there is no common stage already set before both of you. For example, you can tell a colleague or spouse you are going out for something and will return in a half hour, and that provides ample information about when you will be gone and when you will be back. But if you leave a note for someone, or the voice-mail equivalent of a note, that says "I will be back in a half hour" and you do not put a time or date on the message, the recipient will have no idea when you will arrive, or whether you have already returned and gone again. Yet many people write notes or use the telephone as though the recipient can read their mind. They will call a business for the first time and begin a conversation as though one is supposed to know them. ("Hi, this is Kathy.") Or they will return a digital page hours or even days later to a number they do not recognize with just the opening line "Did you call me?" without even saying who they are or why they are calling you.
Writing without giving sufficient background information is like changing the subject of a conversation, or beginning a conversation, in the middle, such as, out of the blue saying something like "Are you going to be visiting her?" when the person you are speaking with has no clue whom you mean or what you are talking about. Some people are so self-absorbed or pre-occupied with their own understanding that they become angry if you ask them what they are talking about, or if you ask them for clarification or explanation of any point they make. They might say something like "Do I have to spell out every little detail for you?" in response to a valid need for clarification or explanation of a point you had no way of understanding. Or they might say something like "We just talked about that; don't you listen to anything?" when what is actually the case is that the other person mentioned in passing about a week ago that a mutual acquaintance was going to have some minor elective surgery in a few weeks, and now the speaker has suddenly thought about making plans to visit them in the hospital or at their home, and is inquiring whether you have entertained similar plans. The speaker knows what s/he is referring to, and (unreasonably) thinks you do to, or should.
Of course in any face-to-face spoken conversation, you might explain more or less than is necessary for the other person to understand and appreciate your meaning. And, of course, even in face-to-face conversations, misunderstandings can occur. At a party, someone might tell another something about the woman by the piano in the blue dress, only to have the other person focus on a different woman by the piano, also in a blue dress, without either one of them noticing there are two women who fit that description and that they are not talking about the same person. But in writing, you particularly have to be sensitive to giving enough information because if you do not, later clarification may take a long time or be impossible. While giving too much information in writing may be boring or tedious for the reader in a linear exposition(3), giving too little to convey your meaning can be puzzling, frustrating, or disastrous. In a conversation, the other person can always seek clarification immediately of any point, and, if necessary, interrupt unnecessary clarification by saying they understand. One reason why a speech is like writing is that the audience cannot always interrupt to get immediate clarification, and there are many people you are addressing, so you have to write in a way that they all can understand you and the significance of your comments. It is not easy to know and to address the greatest common understanding.
In spoken communication between two people in proximity to each other, usually fewer words need to be used than would be necessary in writing, because people in a conversation can point or gesture, use facial expressions, tonal inflections, body language to convey part of their meaning without spelling everything out in words alone. In phone conversations facial expressions, pointing, gesturing, and body language are not available, but tonal inflections can still be quite useful. Furthermore, one can interrupt the other person at any time to respond to any point at the appropriate time before the other person perhaps goes too far down a mistaken or unclear path. In written messages, none of those things are available. But more than that, physically proximal conversation occurs in an environment where both people have access to facts not in evidence to a phone or mail correspondent, unless they are told. If, for example, someone is looking forward to playing golf shortly, and has on his golf clothes and is getting ready to go outside or get into his car, and a huge thunderclap goes off, followed by the sound of wind kicking up, all he needs to say to any companion is "Well, so much for golf this afternoon!" The friend will normally understand that golf was planned but that there won't be any golf played, and why. But if you just phoned someone or wrote someone, particularly in another city, you could not open up with "So much for golf this afternoon" unless you wanted to explain that after you said it. You would have to say something more like "I was all dressed for golf and getting in my car when this huge clap of rolling thunder went off and the wind kicked up from out of nowhere. So much for golf that afternoon!"
Similarly, if you want to point out a funny looking couple, you just simply tell your spouse or your friend "Check out the mismatch over there in the corner - the guy in the plaid shirt, and the girl in the blue dress." She will see what you do, and either laugh or say "What's the matter with them?" But if you were writing about the couple to someone, you would have to describe them, and perhaps describe the setting where you saw them if that were relevant, and you would have to say what was odd about them or about their being together. And you would probably want to write about it in a way that was funny. Many people do not want to be bothered with going into such detail, or they do not feel they do it well, so they do not write at all or do not like to write.
Writing for School Assignments
Teachers tend to reinforce this fact by just giving a grade and making admonishing comments, not really trying to find out what the student meant or suggesting better ways to say it, and not asking questions about the book or subject that show any real interest in finding out more about it. Often it is a subject about which the teacher already has some information and only wants to see whether the student includes that information. So a teacher might write "This is unclear" instead of genuinely asking the student what s/he meant by it or even explaining why it is unclear or what is unclear about it. Or the teacher may say a portion is irrelevant without asking the student why s/he thought it was important or interesting, etc. That tends to make students reluctant to write.
I was involved in a situation one time that shows the difference between writing for communication and writing for a grade. In my ninth grade English course, with a teacher on whom I had a crush and who I thought was really smart and pretty, I had a disagreement about one of the exercises in a homework assignment. We were supposed to identify the direct object in some 30 or 40 sentences, and the indirect object also if there was one. These were not particularly difficult, but they were also not much fun - clearly nothing to write any more than one had to about them. There was one sentence, however, "The stewardess told us about the safety belts" that caused the disagreement between the teacher and me. The book had stated that for there to be an indirect object there must first be a direct object; otherwise what seemed like an indirect object would be the direct object. In the sentence in question there was no noun to serve as the direct object, so, weird as it sounded, I said that "us" had to be the direct object, and the teacher said it was the indirect object with "about the safety belts" being a "noun phrase" that served as the direct object. Now the grammar textbook explained all kinds of phrases that could serve as parts of speech - adjectival phrases, adverbial phrases, etc. - but it said nothing about the existence of noun phrases. I argued that if there were such things as noun phrases the book would have said so. She asked another teacher about it and the other teacher agreed with her, but neither of them could point to anything written about their supposed noun phrases. I was not convinced, so I wrote a letter to the author of the textbook, describing the disagreement and asking him to settle it, including sending a diagram of the sentence so there would be no misunderstanding. I knew that would show the teacher she was wrong. He wrote back that my teacher was correct, but that since noun phrases were not taught in his series until the tenth grade grammar book that he would change that sentence for the next printing of the ninth grade text, and that he appreciated my letter because it would help him improve his textbook. (He did change it too. My sister was five years younger than I, and when she got to the ninth grade in a different high school, half the books - the newer editions - had a different sentence in that place in that exercise. My sister happened to mention how weird that had been in class, and I got out the letter from the author to show her why it was.) I told my teacher after class the next day that I owed her an apology (she asked "Just one?") and I showed her the letter explaining (only, as far as I was concerned) that she was right and I was wrong. I thought she would be angry with me for "going over her head" but she was actually so impressed that a friend of mine who witnessed this incident said disdainfully it was a move that guaranteed me an "A" for life in her class. I don't know whether it did or not, but the point is that I would have hated having to do the assignment in as complete a way as I did the letter, but writing the letter was easy and enjoyable because it had a point to it. I really had wanted to show her she was wrong, and have the authority of the textbook author to verify it. Yet, in this same course, whenever she gave a writing assignment, it was pure tedium to have to do it; I would wait to the last minute because I had "nothing to say" and nothing I cared to write. This would have even been true if we had been given an assignment to "write a business letter." I would not have known anything to write, and the result would have been quite inane. Yet here was a perfectly good business letter because I had something to write that was important to me.
Also, in many courses students do not have much to say about a topic because they are just learning about it. Even if they might have some sort of insight into the subject they are not likely to know they do because they do not know others do not see what they do or think as they do. I remember dreading each year having to write the essay the back-to-school first day essay of "What I Did During My Summer Vacation". Well, I never did anything that I felt was worth writing about or telling about. We didn't go anywhere; my routine was not glamorous or exciting; I just "didn't do anything." Now, as an adult, however, I know that my childhood was in some ways the same and in some ways different from that of others, and I can talk about moments in ways that will seem funny or poignant or interesting to them because they will either evoke similar experiences and reminiscences or be something different enough to seem unusual to them or because it will explain some trait of mine they find significant. But I could not do any of this in school because I had no perspective at that time that made my everyday existence seem anything other than pedestrian and not worth describing. I had nothing to say, or more accurately, I did not know I had anything to say that might possibly be interesting or that could be possibly told in an interesting way.
Nor are students who have to write about new topics likely to know the pitfalls of what seems obviously true but which turn out not to be true at all. So they tend to gloss over things which require more depth and they write things they would not have if they only had known more about the subject.
My feeling has always been that writing comes pretty easily to students or to anyone when they have something they want to write to someone whom they think will be interested in what they have to say. This is especially true when there are genuine communicative responses that make such efforts worthwhile and when students know that, or know there is a chance for it, as they begin to write.
Creative Writing vs Analytic Writing
Now, it is popular in elementary schools today, and it is generally a pretty good thing, to have students keep journals and also to write (fictional) stories. The idea is to help children be creative, appreciate writing (and, by extension, reading) and to foster the idea that writing is as natural as speaking and reading is as natural as listening - that writing is a form of communication like speaking. In kindergarten and the primary grades, "invented spelling" or basically phonetic spelling is allowed with only minor corrections because teachers (1) do not want to discourage student writing by making them have to worry about spelling or by making them feel bad they made 'mistakes', and (2) believe that in the proper teaching environment, students will improve on their spelling as they get older.(4)
While all this does help students write more and enjoy writing more, I believe it only works for that sort of writing which is freer or more conversational in style. I do not think it helps students write analytic or non-fiction better because there is still the problem of what to say that is accurate and significant in those kinds of works. And, if students are not at some point helped to polish their journals or fictional writing, this manner of teaching, by itself, will not help them write better fiction or good formal works, whether fiction or non-fiction. It will make students more comfortable with writing, but not necessarily good, or better, at it. One should distinguish between making writing be natural and making it also be good; for just as talking is natural, not all speaking is very good. As students mature, quality of writing needs to be emphasized, as well as the naturalness of it. There is a need to foster improvement in quality without killing the desire to write.
Computers are a great potential boon to learning to polish one's writing, because generally they allow editing without total re-writes. Students can add things to their works as they discuss them with others and get new ideas. They can remove the things they decide are not good after all. The order of presentation can often be altered without having to start from scratch. Unlike with a typed or handwritten manuscript, for works created with a computer most of this can be done without having to re-type or re-write everything each time a change is desired. I believe it would be helpful to students if they could write classroom assignments on computers and if teachers responded to that writing in a way that gave students natural (not mere grade) incentive and opportunity to polish their works.
Computers are also good because e-mail gives people natural practice in corresponding effectively through writing. E-mail allows time to think about one's words and ideas, but delivers them, once written, with an immediacy closer to conversation than to surface mail. E-mail is more fun than writing letters on paper because the delivery and potential response time is so much faster. E-mail essentially combines the near immediacy of conversation with the reflection and potential permanence of correspondence on paper.
I titled this essay "Significant Differences Between Writing and Talking: Why Talking Seems Easier" because I do not believe writing actually is more difficult when one has something to say, has an understanding of what the reader needs to have explained, and if one has had practice polishing one's work. Writing only seems or is more difficult because often one is not sure what to say and/or because one is made to write on a subject, or for a purpose, in which one is not interested or does not have sufficient information to know what needs to be said. It is not the writing that is difficult; it is the situation in which one is likely to write or is made to write, without having had sufficient natural practice in writing and polishing one's writing. If one has something one wants to communicate, knows what needs to be communicated to make it clear to the reader, and has had some good practice in writing for understanding and eloquence, writing may actually even be easier than talking because you have more time to think about it, play with it, and shape it.
1. By writing, I include typing and other sorts of
printed or drawn material that would be transmitted through a medium that
allows for storage or relative permanence over time and distance. (Return
2. In some cases writing can even be a faster and
more efficient way to communicate ideas than talking. It can be a faster
and safer way to get a number of ideas formulated before one forgets some
of them - if one makes notes and then expands on them later. And writing
is faster if something needs to be formulated pretty carefully before it
is conveyed to anyone, or if it has to be conveyed to different people
at different times. Still, even in these cases, writing is often more difficult
than talking. (Return to text.)
3. Hypertext reading systems reduce or eliminate
this problem, as well as the problem of having to find the best single
order in which to place material. With hypertext links, one can allow readers
to quickly and easily jump to the parts of a composition they choose for
themselves as they are reading. One might then, for example, have only
main points in the "body" or main text of a composition with links to material
that is more detailed, explanatory, or merely related to particular points
as they are presented. That way those who wish to follow those links can
do so either while reading for the first time or later, and those who wish
to ignore that material altogether and not be distracted, confused, or
annoyed by it can do so as well. This allows fairly easy reading both for
those who are looking just for the main ideas and those who are looking
for greater detail and explanation. (Return to text.)
4. Unfortunately the proper teaching environment
with regard to honing spelling skills eventually does not necessarily occur
in many schools, so spelling these days has taken something of a turn for
the non-standard among many graduates. But that is a different issue from
the goal of getting students to be as comfortable as possible with writing,
as young as possible. Teachers do seem successful getting students to write,
and be comfortable with writing, using this approach. (Return