If You Can Speak It, Why Can’t You Write It?

November 29, 2011

I was well into my college education before it occurred to me that most people, including my collegiate peers, were largely incapable of constructing basic sentences. This stunning realization came about during my junior year of college, when I became a tutor at the university writing center. We were tasked with guiding (as opposed to telling) students to the proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation, a time-consuming process primarily achieved by having students read their papers out loud as we followed along on a duplicate copy. Why, you ask? Because as it turns out, people are much, much better at speaking in coherent sentences than they are at writing them. Time and time again, I would listen as my tutee read something completely different from what was actually on their paper. Word order that was horrifically jumbled on a page would come out clear as day in their speech. When I would ask them to read what they had actually written, I’d inevitably meet with a blank stare –they thought they just had.

The conundrum of why people can speak and read but cannot write is one that has frustrated and baffled me for years. Even as a law student, I regularly encountered horrible writing from people that seemed otherwise quite articulate and intelligent. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of explanations for why most people can’t write, ranging from “kids these days” to “teachers are underpaid” to “TV and the internet are rotting our children’s brains!” I happen to think that most of these explanations are encumbered with a heavy dose of bullshit and finger-pointing. If you can speak and read, you should be able to write. So what’s stopping you?

  1. People Are Scared. There are few things more intimidating on this earth than the blinding white expanse of a blank Microsoft Word document starting you in the face. Where to begin! What to say! It’s scary as hell. I get it. And for a lot of people, this fear turns into the devil on their shoulder, whispering in their ear that they have to get it right the first time, every word they put on the page must be perfect, and everything they write must be kept. The next time you think this, I want you to picture me (five foot two, dark blond hair, brown eyes) standing on the other shoulder, with a bullhorn, screaming in your ear “fuck that guy!” You cannot imagine how many essays, papers, speeches I have written that start out as total trash. The first page is chaotic, overwrought, disjointed. This “junk,” if you will, is my process for collecting my thoughts, testing out what works, finding my rhythm. In fact, I just deleted the entire first paragraph of this blog post after realizing it was total crap. I just needed to start somewhere. Don’t be afraid to start poorly and do a brutal self-edit later. Getting all the junk out of the way is not time wasted if it leads you to the buried treasure.
  2. Big Words Do Not Equal Good Writing. Ever read a sentence that goes something like this? Crap crap trash crap EXCOGITATE, trash crap crap. I do all the time. People think that inserting big, “I own a really large, old, leather-bound dictionary” words will disguise crappy writing. I’m here to disabuse you of this notion. Nobody is fooled. Your writing is just as bad. You just know how to use Thesaurus.com. Congratulations. Here’s the deal: only write what you would actually say out loud. If you use excogitate in your everyday speech, knock yourself out, but for me, it’s easier to say “thought it through.” So speaking of, think it through. Imagine you’re having a conversation with your reader. Imagine what you would say to them, and then say it. Silently. On paper.
  3. Most of What You Read Is Trash. On November 11, 2011, the authors of the top five books on The New York Times Bestseller List were, in order from one to five: David Baldacci, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steel, Richard Paul Evans. USA Today is written in such a way that someone with an 8th Grade level of education can read and easily comprehend it. Moral of this story? People read crap. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy crap as much as the next gal, and I think the Twilight Saga, Harry Potter, and a number of Nora Roberts romance novels are really entertaining reads. The problem is that most people read only this stuff, and if you never read anything that challenges you intellectually, you will never be a better writer. That said, put down the People Magazine. Back away slowly. Now go pick up The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. In them you will find some of the highest quality writing in the world. The articles they contain are written intelligently, for an intellectual audience. The “big” words fit so seamlessly into the sophisticated structure of the writing that the reader never stumbles over them. Even more important than the sentences themselves, however, is what they convey. Through them you will learn more about the world – what’s interesting, what’s timely, what moves people, angers them, enlivens them, enthralls them. You will learn how to tell a story that does more than awaken – it makes the reader stand still, captivated. And after all, isn’t that the goal?

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