A common pitfall I see with my clients in the Writing Studio comes in the form of their writing feeling too much like oral language in tone, organization, and filler words. Sure, there is a time and place for conversational writing, such as when you are writing a creative piece or responding to a reading in a response paper. However, there are a few lessons we can learn from looking at how talking and writing differ.
WRITTEN LANGUAGE NEEDS GRAMMAR
In oral language, speakers use body language to convey subtle details for their audience. These gestures can be as simple as cupping hands together in thanks, waving to generate applause, or even a “stop” gesture to get the audience to pause or garner anticipation.
In written language, we don’t have the luxury of body language. Instead, we use grammar to pace our writing. We use colons to start an enumeration or a list, em dashes to offer a brief pause before switching to a new thought, or a variety of other pieces of punctuation to signify ends of clauses, sentences, or ideas.
Why this is important: Understanding that our audience cannot actually hear us shows how important it is to use grammar for pacing and clarification.
How to apply this lesson to your work: Brush up on how to properly use commas, colons, semicolons, and em dashes. You can find good grammar guides at Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips.
WRITTEN LANGUAGE SHOULD BE PRECISE
Oral language will always have more immediacy than written language simply by the nature of the medium since its audience does not actively need to do anything, such as read, in order to be invested in what is being communicated. However, even though oral language can hold attentions longer than written language, it is harder to be as detailed as written language, and audiences sometimes cannot retain as much information as when they read.
In written language, writers have the benefit of knowing exactly what their audience is going to see, which means writers begin a process of drafting in order to make sure they are saying what they want to say as clearly as possible. This is not to say a speech cannot be precise–however, since words cannot be unheard once spoken, speeches become part performance.
Why this is important: Understanding that in written language it is harder to keep the audience’s attention shows us how important it is to get to the point without any unnecessary filler.
How to apply this lesson to your work: Go through your work and remove any unnecessary words. Many times, the words “of,” “that,” and “which” can all be quickly edited out with simple changes to sentence construction. Be on the lookout to remove “to be” verbs and introductory clauses, as well.
WRITTEN LANGUAGE SHOULD BE INTERESTING
Lastly, in oral language, the speaker has the benefit of being able to change his or her message based on crowd reaction. Visual and audio cues help the speaker figure out whether the crowd is comprehending or responding to his or her material, which makes it easier to pursue attempts at relevance, humor, or anything needed to make the audience more invested in the work.
In written language, writers have no immediate response from their audience. Often, no one will read their message until after they have spent a considerable amount of time on their work. This makes it harder for writers to “hook” their audience and communicate to them what is at stake in their writing.
Why this is important: Understanding the lack of a quick response to how our audience will react shows us how we need to be able to anticipate how our audience will react to our work. In order to write something engaging to an audience, we need to stay a few steps in front of them.
How to apply this lesson to your work: Include a strong hook in the introduction of that shows how your work has relevance or importance. Consider using anecdotes or interesting statistics throughout the writing as a way to keep the audience understanding why your work is important.