Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Words Can't Speak for Themselves
Sometimes writing isn't enough
Writing does some things really well. Sometimes that isn’t enough.
As much as I love writing, sometimes it isn’t enough.
As important as writing is, sometimes it isn’t enough.
Sometimes writers need to become speakers.
This is not a story on how to promote your blog or how writers should use social media. You can find lots of good advice on those topics online elsewhere.
This is a story on the limitations of writing in any medium. And why. And when you might need to speak instead
I like to think that once I’ve written something down, especially once my writing has been published, my work is done and now people know . . . whatever it is I wanted them to know. But our writing doesn’t have impact until it’s read. And even then writing can have less impact than the same information presented in other media or genres.
Consider the impact of the many articles and books written about the unjust convictions and imprisonment of the “Central Park Five.” Now consider the impact of one Netflix dramatic series, “When They See Us.” Writing (and even an earlier documentary) wasn’t enough.
Consider the difference between writing a report and testifying before Congress. After special counsel Robert Mueller published his team’s 2-volume, 448-page report (plus many more pages of appendixes), he remained publicly silent. “We chose those words carefully,” Mr. Mueller eventually said, “and the work speaks for itself.”
If only that were true.
If only our words were always enough and could speak for themselves. But the case of Mueller’s report illustrates a few key facts about writing:
How many times have you decided not to read an article in The Atlantic or Harper’s or the New York Times Magazine because you didn’t have time or it was just too long?
Writing needs to be read.
2. Dense or long texts require a lot of cognitive processing (brain work) that can make it hard for readers to hang onto.
By page 73 and its footnote number 341, even the most intrepid reader might be struggling to keep straight one more phone call and email between a Russian and Michael Cohen.
How many times have you started reading an article or story and quit before the end because it was just too much work for the payoff? Or simply found yourself lost in the middle, trying to remember how this part fits into the topic you started with? Or trying to process a complicated sentence with multiple moving parts?
3. Words and sentences require interpretation.
Mueller might have thought the Conclusion would “speak for itself” for those who reached page 200+ and the Conclusion to the Executive Summary to Volume II of the report
But Attorney General William Barr and the President both offered interpretations of that conclusion apparently at odds with what Mueller thinks the report said.
Which half of the concluding sentence do you choose to focus on: “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime”? or “it also does not exonerate him”?
Those negatives leave plenty of room for misunderstanding and misuse, as do the many qualifiers before them. Even the first word of that last sentence, “Accordingly,” requires readers to process a subtle interpretation of which preceding statements affect the report’s conclusions and in what ways.
Most sentences are like that, with even the most transparent requiring interpretation. “I know where you live.” Is that a statement that I don’t need to give you my address? Or is it a threat?
4. Writing lacks face-to-face contact.
The good thing about writing is that the audience doesn’t have to be present. Writing carries facts, ideas, and experiences well beyond the moment, well beyond this place and time, leaving a lasting record that can be experienced by strangers in the future.
The bad thing about writing is that the audience doesn’t have to be present. There’s no feedback loop, no immediate audience to offer reactions or ask questions. No chance for the writer to discover a misunderstanding or misinterpretation and correct it (at least not until the work’s revised edition).
Writing allows no reading of facial expression or body language, no use of impassioned intonation or leaning forward to convey intensity or to persuade. For a special counsel’s report, that’s probably a good thing, as Mueller clearly believed. For those deciding the country’s future, writing leaves something to be desired. Hence the requests for Mueller to testify before Congressional committees.
In the end, Mueller’s written words couldn’t speak for themselves
Because writing and speaking are different
When I teach scientists and other researchers how to write up their research results, I teach them ways of managing that cognitive load, the amount of brain work required of readers, tips like:
But sometimes, even the most well-crafted, information-managed writing remains challenging and needs to be unpacked. Sometimes, dense writing requires expansion or elaboration.
And sometimes the situation requires that writing shift to speaking, as the Mueller report and testimony reveal:
For managers conveying news or inspiring loyalty, for teachers insisting on in-person and not just online class time, for writers deciding when and how to follow up their publications, and for special counsels who want the work to just speak for itself,
It pays to understand the limitations of writing and why, sometimes, words can’t speak for themselves.