From Spoken to Written Word: the Quest for Clarity

There is a difference between the way we speak and the way we write. There are several reasons for this, and when we write, we must shift into a different mode of expressing ourselves in order to effectively convey meaning. When we speak, what we say is guided by the contributions of the person/people we’re conversing with. When we write, what we say is guided by our imagined needs of the reader; we must be clear and succinct without the immediate feedback of someone else. We don’t know how our writing will be interpreted, so we have to work a little harder to be clear right off the bat. In a quest for written clarity, one of the most profound differences between spoken and written communication is the establishment of context.
Everything we express happens within in a certain context. Often, we speak in the context of shared knowledge with someone or group of people. You don’t have to verbally provide context when you’re interacting with someone who already shares prior knowledge with you. For instance, you might be cooking a meal together with family. Your cousin is chopping onions while you’ve been measuring other ingredients, and you ask “Done yet?”. “Done yet?” is a question without a clear subject or object, but we don’t have to say “I was wondering if you were done chopping the onions yet,” because all of that additional information is knowledge you already share with your cousin. You share the same context. Your cousin knows you’re referring to the onions when you ask “done yet?” even though you don’t say it explicitly. We don’t have to be so specific when speaking within a context based on shared knowledge.
In contrast, clear writing requires specificity when your audience doesn’t share prior knowledge with you, because it will be read out of context. If we were writing about this cooking situation, we would need to establish context for the reader: “I was cooking with my family last night and my cousin was taking a long time to finish preparing the ingredients. Impatient to eat, I asked him ‘Are you done chopping those onions yet?!’” The information that is missing from spoken context must be incorporated into written communication.

What you write will be read in the context of your reader’s subjective experience. It will be read in the context of their day, their mood, their life. Your reader isn’t likely to be invested in what you’re saying unless you have done the work to establish a different context for them. Once something is written down, it takes on a life of its own. It is something from your mind that has been defined and made manifest into a shared reality, with a potentially infinite audience. Writing is how our internal thoughts, ideas, and feelings are given voice and become part of concrete reality. Someone could stumble upon your writing 100 years from now and its meaning could be and completely misconstrued. It isn’t enough to write so you’ll be understood; you must write so you won’t be misunderstood. Written material can be read repeatedly and closely analyzed, so clarity is paramount for avoiding ambiguity and misinterpretation.
When we speak with one another, what we say and the order we say things is usually governed by the person/people you’re in a conversation with. When we write, we have to anticipate the needs and curiosities of the reader to guide what we say, instead of having someone prompt us for clarification or additional details. When we speak to someone, we have an idea of how well the other person understands what we’re saying based on their questions:
A costumer might ask a salesperson “I’m looking for new headphones, can you help me?”, and the salesperson asks “Over-the-ear or earbuds?”. The customer says “earbuds”. The salesperson then asks, “What is the most important thing to you when it comes to headphones? Comfort? Sound-quality?” and the customer replies “comfort”. Through someone’s questioning in a conversation, we provide more and more detail based on the other person’s need for understanding. When we write, however, we must determine ourselves what details to include based on our imagined needs of the reader. If someone was to write on social media to get feedback about headphones, they would need to set a context and provide detail within their writing: “Looking for new earbuds, comfort a MUST. Any suggestions?”. All of the information gathered over the course of a 3-question conversation must be included in the written piece all at once.

Writing must also be more succinct than speech, because when we speak, we have the opportunity to quickly correct ourselves. When we write something, we have made a definite statement. When we speak, we will often arrive at our intended meaning by correcting ourselves several times over the course of a conversation. In conversation we might say something like: “I don’t really listen to EDM that much. I mean, kind of. I guess I sometimes listen to it, but not, like, all the time. Maybe every other day? But sometimes I’ll get in a mood and listen to it every morning when I get up”. Or someone might say “I think Washington Park is my favorite park. Oh, wait. No. I mean Cheesman Park, sorry, I always get those two mixed up”.  If we wrote all of the self-corrections we make in speech, our reader would struggle to keep track of what we’re saying. We expect that writing has already boiled down our ideas to their most accurate and succinct form. Writing is a longer process than speaking, because it can be really hard work trying to figure out exactly what we’re trying to say and translate that into complete, coherent thoughts.

So, when I gave feedback on your assignment that there were “too many vague statements”, I think the disconnect that may have happened was transitioning from the demands of verbal communication to written communication. Clarity is our top priority in all genres and situations when we write. Clarity in writing results from anticipating the needs of our reader. As we transition between spoken word and written word, we must be aware of the differences in our approach to communication. Establishing a context for your writing, providing relevant detail, and being succinct are ways to bridge the gap between what we speak and what we write. Writing clearly demands a shift mindset to one that constantly has your imagined reader in mind; assume they need thorough explanation, and that they do not already share your knowledge.

-Erienne Romaine

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