Articles on Writing

Your Brain Must Transition from Spoken Word to Written Word

Speech and writing are two different dialects of English. It’s a matter of how the medium affects the message. When someone speaks, the message is mediated through their body language and inflection. When you write, your meaning is mediated by a blank piece of paper. “Craft” is learning how to make paper speak.

In beginning to write, most people put down the words as they would speak them–that is, as if told to another person in the room. This “telling” lands on the page as stark text, stripped of all the vocal nuance, facial expression and gesture that we would normally use to enliven a conversation.

Think of this: it’s been said that 70% of human communication is nonverbal. Beginning to write isn’t a straight lateral shift from one communication medium to another. It begins with a loss of 70% of your communication skills. As new writers, it feels like we’re beginning a conversation with a stranger in a strange land. We’re coming from behind in our self-expression, as if we’d suffered a major stroke. First critiques are brutal; form rejections are standard fare. Nobody understands us. The learning curve can feel like drowning.

That poorly controlled flailing feeling is normal. It’s part of the deal. You are beginning a process of rewiring your brain.

Transitioning from Spoken to Written Expression

We can compare fluent writers to experienced public speakers in terms of their communication skills. But can we compare beginning writers to Average-Joe conversationalists?

Probably not in most cases. That 70% loss caused by the restrictions of the blank page doesn’t even leave us at a baseline equivalent of everyday conversation, let alone able to hit the heights of an experienced professional communicator. When a writer first starts out, he’s not the passerby on the street, lost in the crowd; he’s the guy in occupational therapy. That’s what learning the art and craft of writing is.

Over and over, you’ll hear that the journey to artistic maturity is a long one requiring perseverance. That’s because the axiom of communications loss and relearning is true to varying extents in all art forms. It’s not just writers, it’s anyone who uses artistic media to share their view of the world.

The goal of the guy in rehab therapy is to become the guy on the street, lost in the crowd. (The official term for this is “artistic obscurity.”) For him, that’s a joyful place to be. He doesn’t care if he ever gives a speech to thousands, he’s just happy to be the master of himself. To get to that point, he has to be patient with himself, know where he’s at in the process, and stay true to what he’s promised himself.

The Psychology of the Apprentice: Expression Requires Content

Remember the old tale of brooms and mops gone awry under the best of intentions? We all go through it in some way. The thing about the sorcerer’s apprentice is, he doesn’t really understand how the magic works, only that it works. As he finds out, his sense of his own knowledge is insufficient to carry the day. He has thought of the magic only as an external tool or mechanism for getting a job done.

To switch metaphors, there’s an oriental teaching that real physical power comes from the center of gravity in the lower abdomen. The central focus point just below and behind the belly button is called the tanden (“the field of burning”), and from that core, all true movement begins. As one Japanese martial arts master put it, “All movements are the same movement.”

Remember I said, “Creation is one lifelong action of ever-increasing fluency, not a formula of steps to be followed”? As in martial arts, so in creative arts. When you find your core and understand how to use it to impel the creative motions of well-crafted, passionate expression, things get much simpler.

What’s at the core of your writing career? Discovering this is part of the journey. It takes years to master and refine that driving power. It’s composed of what’s truly important to you. Especially if you’re young, that changes as you gain perspective. Not only that, but we lie to ourselves. (It’s true.) As you enter communications rehab, perseverance will also force you to a level of honesty with yourself that you’ve never approached before.

Transitioning from Spoken to Written Content

Life accumulates lies. As you become aware of them, as you learn how to strip off their stale, sticky surface, the act of writing will make you more whole. And it will make you a storyteller–not just an apprentice of writing craft.

We begin by thinking that our core concerns are things “out there.” Social problems, historical or political problems, other people’s personal problems.

Actually, it’s ourselves we write about. All the darkness and the hope, the limitations and the conflicts. They come from within, deep down in the core. They are at the heart of every movement you will ever make. Every perfect phrase; every authorial intrusion of self-justifying over-explanation. Every pure description; every fumble into stilted language that skims over the true nature of your thoughts.

That’s why you can only master the craft of written expression by telling yourself the truth. Every day, we use that 70% nonverbal expression to make our half-truths convincing. Stripped of those techniques and laid out on the page, our prevarications are exposed for the stilted, clumsy, vague and shallow things they really are.

Everything a writer does “wrong” has a reason, one that has been trained into our communication since an early age. Bad storytelling is more commonly known as “politeness.”

It consists of techniques for refraining from expressing our own core, for hiding ourselves from others. That’s how we are taught to speak to one another. We are careful, mostly shallow and mundane, and we lie constantly to shield our treasured relationships and self-image from the gritty underlying realities.

It’s the most terrifying feeling ever: The first time you, a communications cripple, look in that mirror and see yourself struggling along with much, much more than just written expression. But it’s what has to happen. Your brain must transition from spoken word to written word, both in expression and in content.

Just remember this: behind every polite lie there is a truth, and we wouldn’t say anything at all if that truth weren’t somewhere in it. You’ve already begun.

Measure yourself accurately. Stay true to yourself.

Image: FeatheredTar on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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2 replies »

  1. Let’s see if I understand what you’re saying. So often what we say is not what we’re really feeling (the lie), so for others to correctly interpret our communication, they must read the other 70%. When we try and translate this into written dialogue, new writers inadequately represent that other 70%, and so it comes out sounding too polite. This is because they are only showing the surface level of communication. In order to break through that surface level, which isn’t really the true essence of what’s trying to be said, the writer has to analyze himself and the difference between what he often says and what he really believes. It sounds like displaying this can be helped by using direct thoughts for the pov’s dialogue and making that pov more observant of the person they are speaking with. This enables them to interpret the words said instead of just having those words. Following the motivation-response unit structure, their words become the motivation, then the pov’s thoughts, actions or words becomes the response.

    I’m curious what you think about dialogue tags that explain what has just been said. I’m searching for an example… “No I didn’t,” he argued. That’s a short example, but sometimes writers are more elaborate in explaining the pov character’s intent in the words.

    • “When we try and translate this into written dialogue, new writers inadequately represent that other 70%, and so it comes out sounding too polite.”

      Or wooden, or it’s hard to tell what relevance the remark has to the surrounding context.

      “In order to break through that surface level, which isn’t really the true essence of what’s trying to be said, the writer has to analyze himself and the difference between what he often says and what he really believes.”

      I’m not a major fan of extended self-analysis, but I do believe in losing all political correctness as an artistic discipline. 🙂 Maybe I should say that we need to think about how *else* we’re communicating or masking our intentions and translate that into the 5 immediate-scene elements.

      “It sounds like displaying this can be helped by using direct thoughts for the pov’s dialogue and making that pov more observant of the person they are speaking with. This enables them to interpret the words said instead of just having those words. Following the motivation-response unit structure, their words become the motivation, then the pov’s thoughts, actions or words becomes the response.”

      Often so, yes. The main thing is to get the *writer’s* interpretation off the page and leave it to the character’s interpretation.

      “No I didn’t,” he argued.

      We use that much more extensively in middle-grade and YA fiction, because kids need those extra cues in order to understand what’s going on. They’re not as socially developed. Adult fiction uses semantics more often, but it really depends on whether the events are central to the story, or if they’re lower-tension things that simply string the main events together. More “telling” or summary is appropriate for less-vital events in the storyline.

      In the above example, there’s no point repeating the “argued,” since the arguing is likely abundantly clear from the context. 🙂 Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE) often applies. Action beats or interior monologue tend to do a better job of clarifying the attribution while also filling out the scene’s depth.

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