As a professor, one of the most effective strategies when engaging with students during the writing process is to get them to speak about what they are trying to say. For whatever reason, there is lucidity available through the sound of words more so than their appearance on a page. Perhaps because the ability to converse, and the act of conversing, is seemingly ingrained within our DNA. Though discourse can occur through writing, such as emails and letters, there is an overall lack of immediacy and challenge that is typically provided by the reader. Writing, which is a much more adolescent human invention than speaking (especially for the masses), does not appear to be as natural as speech. And that’s because it’s not. If two children were placed on a remote island without any caretaker, as they aged they would naturally develop a language between one another. This can be assumed through basic observations that linguists, like Steven Pinker, have made in regards to how humans learn to speak. For those interested, Pinker lays out our natural linguistic tendencies in his book, The Language Instinct, in a way that is both enjoyable and easily digestible. We do not need a teacher, or a mother or father, to speak. We will speak without guidance. Even if the language might appear as gibberish to the remainder of society, mechanics, structure and syntax will naturally arise - look no further than the pidgins developed throughout our history of cultural collisions. However, the stranded and lonesome children may not write, as writing is something that must be taught, and based on today’s standards, is a teaching process that can span over one’s entire lifetime.
So, it appears that people tend to understand themselves better if they say what they’re thinking, rather than write it, and even better if they have someone to express their thoughts to (therapy), which is when speaking shifts to conversation. But this is the digital age, and I think it is safe to say that we have become conditioned to communicating with one another through text based interfaces such as texting, social media etc. Even video communication programs, such as Skype and Facetime, dissolve the physical distance once required for conversation, and the pixels and screens of which may distort microexpressions and cut off body language. A bit of anecdotal evidence; I have a friend who will mostly refuse to take phone calls because it causes them distress. Of course there may be many reasons for this, but it would be foolish to think that a text based society has nothing to do with it.
A little more anecdotal evidence; when I ask students “What do you mean by this? Try to say it to me as if we were having a conversation,” what springs from their mouths is almost always far more legible and sophisticated than what they have written on the page. So my usual response is “just write that.” Of course, students and people tend to view writing, especially academic writing, as entering into a more civilized pseudo-language, and therefore paradoxically fail from the awkwardness of playing pretend, “sounding smart,” to accommodate or impress instructors and peers. The dirty little secret that rests beneath all writing courses is that from the time we are very young we are told to write in a way that no one speaks. In English, this is known as Standard English and its what your teachers have been beating into your brain since kindergarten. In reality, nobody speaks in Standard English, and if they do, they would certainly sound like an alien trying to learn a human language. But, from a young age we are told to write in a particular fashion, and this has stuck with us. For the many that are unable to fully grasp this foreign tongue of standardization, the process of expressing their thoughts is much like dressing up in a tuxedo but forgetting to wear your trousers; it looks kind of formal but there is something painfully absent. I believe that, on some level, the rules of writing are always peering over your shoulder like that one teacher that gave you a C in 9th grade English class because you wrote your whole paper in the passive voice. In other words, individuals write for someone else, for another set of rules, and this process of “dressing up” one’s thoughts blurs the original intentions of the thought. On the other hand, speaking and conversing is spontaneous, emotional, and, perhaps most importantly, simple. Text, as a “middle man” or cypher of thoughts, is not as all encompassing as speech, and therefore, not entirely effective in communication. Think about it like this - is there a punctuation mark for a sad sentence?
So, we have a population of people that were raised being told that “we don’t write the way that we speak,” that are now communicating informally with text-based digital technologies - almost every minute of every day - and using a system that lacks some fundamental / necessary components of successful communication. No wonder people have trouble expressing themselves.
When I was young, my father used to take my brothers and me to this cavern in upstate New York that I can’t recall the name of at this moment. But there was one activity that these mountainous grounds provided that stands out to me - finding gold and little gems in a nearby stream. Children were given handheld filters, which they would then submerge into the bottom of the stream. As it reemerged, all the sand and mud would seep through, and all that remained in the net of the filter was pretty little stones from beneath the murky water. Your ideas, your thoughts, are much like this stream - seemingly infinite, flowing, and with objects you aren’t even aware of yet. The filter I used to capture those stones as a child is much like trying to capture your ideas through text, it is limited, and though a few gems may pass through, not everything will be collected.
Of course, good writers are better at this, and emoticons and GIFS are helping to spice up our digital interactions. But conversation isn’t only for communication, it’s for understanding and reevaluating / challenging your own thoughts and ideas. There is a reason why the statement “I’d prefer to talk about this in person” happens with almost all important topics and prior to almost every break up. But, why are we limited to only talking about conventionally important topics in person?
In my experience, if you want to better understand yourself, as well as expand your understanding of others’ ideas, you should speak. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, I have a friend that dreads phone calls. The unfortunate reality is a lot of people aren’t into the whole face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice, communication anymore. And that’s totally fine, because you can talk to yourself. I’m not suggesting sitting on the subway and having a full out presidential debate with yourself (clapping and all). But let's say you’re trying to grapple with some awful stuff going on in the news - perhaps instead of going right to Facebook to virtue signal to your surrounding population, you sit for a moment to work out exactly how you feel about the situation, and why you’re feeling that way, outloud. In the clarity provided through vocalizing your thoughts, you might find that you’re not as upset as you originally thought, or you might stumble upon a point that helps you empathize with the other side of the debate (which would be more likely to happen if you were having a real life conversation, rather than shouting into the ether of your Twitter feed). These days, technology is here to help to. Almost every smartphone is equipped with a microphone and a voice memo app. This means that you can record your thoughts and then listen back to them. Talking to yourself has never been easier.
I guess what I’m saying in this borderline-stream-of-consciousness-rant is that the digital age is both forcing you to write and respond to happenings very quickly, which is a bad combination, as many disgraced celebrities and politicians have learned. A glance at human history shows us that we’re basically all noobs when it comes to writing, so can we really be surprised by our slow adaptation to these pressures? Is there anything worse than a recorded statement that will be accessible for eternity that wasn’t well-thought out? As someone who has to constantly read students’ work, I can assure you that writing does not always capture what you are trying to say, especially the first time through, which is why I give my students multiple drafts to get it right. If you want to improve the efficiency and accuracy of what you’re trying to express, ask yourself “what am I trying to say? How would I say this in a conversation?” and then actually say it to yourself. Contrary to the stigma surrounding the activity, I think talking to myself has actually made me more sane.