Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing: Relearning How to Speak


According to psychologists, learning language is different than learning words. Children who, for various terrifying reasons, weren’t exposed to speech until later in life have the ability to understand and remember definitions, but are limited when it comes to the other aspects that make up communication. They often struggle with applying grammar, though they’ll be able to logically learn of the rules. Inflection and using words for actual communication proves difficult. In the disturbing case of Genie, part of her language handicap was also due to physical disabilities. She did develop some excellent non-verbal skills, but they tended to be atypical of the body language employed by the average American.

There’s a joke for kids who don’t do well in English class: “Isn’t that the language you speak?!”

Most writers are past puberty and fully equipped to discuss things in the language they are also writing in. So why is it that when we start to write, everything changes?

A professor of mine had a sister who read prolifically. She was a shut in, and found a lot of free time on her hands. One of the things she said was she could always tell when a book was dictated—someone orally telling the story to a typist—and when it was written. It takes a lot of practice for an author to put his own actual voice directly on the page. There’s something unnatural about our natural tongue. (If we even wanted to do write in that, which, let’s face it, we might not.) Most of us are very much aware of the differences between how we write and how we speak. Many of us don’t care. Sometimes we probably should, and sometimes it’s not even allowed by societal expectations.

What is it that makes us write differently than we talk? What is it that makes it so we can’t write as we talk?

The subconscious has a compulsion to make everything “normal.” The internal part of your psyche—your autopilot, your muscle-memory recall, your gut instinct—likes to put things in boxes. It starts to track patterns in order to predict effects of an action. This allows it to think quickly. And usually, it’s very good at its job. The subconscious will tell you to catch this thing chucked at you. Children, who have yet to understand basic physics, may not be able to put two and two together and let themselves be struck, where as an adult will, at least, flinch without telling his body to do so.

It can also immediately retrieve images implied by even vague words. I say, “The dog walked to town,” it will grab a picture of a dog without actually having any information of what kind of dog. You probably pictured a brown, medium-sized and completely factious animal. It’s possible you pictured a real life dog you’ve actually met. Everyone’s subconscious has different assumptions, and your tendencies are important to note as a writer. Writing is a lot about this “negative space,” (the information that you don’t need to say), in order to succinctly give millions of readers the same image in the least amount of time possible. If you are “abnormal” and when someone says “dog” you picture “chihuahua,” you probably won’t get away with saying just “dog” without leading to some confusion.

This dog could be trotting down the sidewalk, or he could be walking through long grass. He could be a border collie, a pit pull, or a teacup poodle. He could be by himself or with an owner. He might have a collar. He might not. It could be raining. There could be fog. Despite not having enough information, the brain doesn’t force the reader to take the time and consciously think, “Where is he? What is he doing? What is he wearing?” It retrieves an image, then tweaks it as you gain more information. When it feels like a huge piece of the puzzle is missing, like “The dog walks,” in which case the setting isn’t clear, it will wait to retrieve an image, leaving the reader in a gray void.

Your subconscious works constantly throughout the day, and it wants to pull information as fast as it can. It includes things like operating your body when you zone out, or tell your fingers what buttons to push to type the word “write” without having to consciously look.

This also strongly affects the way you write your first book. Most of us have the experience going from reader to writer, and a lot of the adjustment stage is the inability to learn through osmosis. All of the sudden we realize we have no idea what happens in the middle of a book, or that we really don’t know what makes a good story—we used to just recognize it when we see it.

You ask your subconscious, “I need to begin a book.”

“Well,” it thinks, “Mornings are beginnings. Your character wakes up!”

The subconscious is not clever. Writing purely by the gut for the first time tends to create a book that is the epitome of what your subconscious thinks books are. It doesn’t understand or care about the importance of originality; it just does what it’s asked in the quickest way possible. It does what just feels right, what makes sense, what should happen.

So, your character goes on a journey.

“Something needs to happen,” you say.

“They’re traveling across the wilderness? You would come across a long, fragile bridge over a deep ravine!”

“My character is walking through a bazaar and I need a compelling conflict.”

“A child steals his wallet.”

When you don’t know what will happen next, your gut tends to pull out things it’s seen before.

This compilation of what your subconscious believes “books are” includes writing style. This means that if you secretly believe critically acclaimed novels are all a bunch of pretentious bullshit, you’re likely to overwrite. Or, you might go the opposite route and believe the narrator is like a film in which this personality and voiceless storyteller dictates neutral visuals.

This is a prominent and controllable reason that amateurs tend to have the same styles when we first begin our career. It’s one of the reasons why experienced writers often suggest reading a lot; you can catch when your subconscious is pulling assumed events from reality (you punch a guy in the face, you go to jail) versus fiction (you jump off a ten story building and hit the ground running.) If you read while you write, you’re more likely to consciously catch clichés, and learn what to question about your own assumptions.

The other reasons are more about language itself than perception of what you’re “supposed” to be doing.

For starters, you just lost two major handicaps that come from oral speech: breathing and time it takes to think.

Our sentences can only be so long as our breath takes. Sometimes we’ll allow a pause to suck in some air, but usually an adult plans out his words to fit within what his lungs would allow. If they do stop mid-sentence for air, he usually hasn’t thought of what he’s going to say past that moment, and uses the time while breathing to come up with the next stretch—risking an interruption by the other party. You hear this with their inflection.

We are also limited by trying to not waste another person’s time, especially when it means they might just start talking. So we are less likely to use precise words, but jam in anything that feels right, or use several words that kind of mean what we meant instead of one correct word. Sometimes, even, we will stall, adding in excess but meaningless words to give us more time to know what we actually want to be saying. This includes, of course, “um,” but can also be entire phrases like, “In all honesty,” or “For starters,” or anything like that. It should be noted that it this is perfectly acceptable in real speech because of this limitation (people will usually try to understand what you mean to say and ignore the mishap. Those who don’t give the benefit of the doubt will often look like pedantic assholes who are trying to disrespect you out of a competitive motivation.)

In writing, however, you suddenly are able to stop and take all the time in the world to choose your words. It becomes an expectation to do so. Master writers use the right words. If you don’t, you’re just Joe Snuffy trying to play with the big boys. We expect precision, flow, succinctness, and prepared sentences, and will not accept anything that seems pulled out of the ass or half-assed.

Writers will often start talking in the way they want to be speaking if they weren’t limited by real time and thought. They’ll use bigger words than normal (sometimes inaccurately), speak in longer sentences, use technically proper grammar (sometimes by instruction), and tend to be overly formal.

The other side of this is that many people write slower than they speak. Okay, everyone does, now that I’m thinking about it. But you’ll note there’s a difference between the mistakes that fast, by the gut typers make and the ones that slow, outliner types. The faster typists tend to have more “stalling” moments in which they have excess words or passages to give them more time to think of what they actually want to say. Slower typers will be more to the point… sometimes too much so.

Even though we are allowed more repetitive word choice in oral speech, it is still less than what a beginning author will do. It’s not uncommon for people to use the same word over and over again in a distracting and sometimes even condescending manner. This is somewhat the influence of Hemingway, but it is also perpetrated unintentionally by those who have no real desire to copy him. It’s pretty much something we’ve all done, and it can be attributed to the speed in which we write.

People who capitalize random words, use a lot of unmotivated sentence fragments, and overuse certain phrases are often either slower typers, or more careful thinkers. Because they’ll write something, stop, think about what they want to say next, then write it, they will be more inclined to “forget” exactly how the last sentence read and not notice what the two sound like next to each other.

That’s the first handicap that textual writing has over verbal storytelling: the inability to control the speed in which the reader reads.

When we speak, we have a lot of say over our rhythm of speech and “timing.” In writing, we are limited to punctuation, paragraphs, length of sentence, “-ing,” and outright suggestion.

A period, a comma, an ellipsis, a dash, a semicolon, a colon, parenthesis. A paragraph break. Saying, “Joe said slowly.”

Punctuation can be used creatively, but is still somewhat restricted by rules. It is considered incredibly inaccurate to put a comma just because you wanted the reader to pause. An ellipsis (“…”) usually suggests to the reader a trailed off word. It often affects inflection and hesitation over a moment of silence. Telling the reader how to read something sometimes works, but can often be jarring and forced. People constantly bitch about semicolons (ironically because they’re not used enough). There is this whole movement against long sentences and starting with conjunctions, and so most of our tactics to control how fast the reader reads are frowned upon.

So if you were to use repetitive word choice while taking your time with a thought—the words separated by actual time—it wouldn’t sound weird. But when it flows quickly like the reader reads, it sounds insultingly simple and unplanned out.

Keep in mind that this has worked for people—Hemingway, for example—but most of the fans of those works argue that the repetitive word choice is intentional. How they tell the difference is something you should ask them. My only point here is to check for accidental repetition of words in your writing. If you intentionally did it, that’s your cross to bear.

This “speed of delivery” is only a portion of the bigger issue at hand—learning to speak without inflection or body language.

I argue that one of the reasons the internet is such a God-awful place is not because people are inherently rude, but because text without physicality tends to be interpreted as rudeness. We can have a contradictory cheeriness, or demonstrate humor, in just our tone or with a smile. We can say the same exact thing in writing that would be perfectly acceptable to someone’s face, and now they’re pissed.

Not only can you not control the timing of your sentence, but you can’t control how people hear it.

Words are far more complex than just technical meaning. It’s not about staying away from those that bend parts of speech or always caring about the subtle difference one word can cause, but recognizing the power of the right word, and why the right word may not always be the one you expect.



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