Write Better By Talking
by Gina Hiatt, PhD
We Write Alone
Writing is a solitary process. It must be. You’re writing your own ideas. Yes, you are in “conversation” with other scholars, but your writing is your individual contribution to that conversation.
But writing can be very isolating, can’t it? If writing is your primary activity, your days can be pretty lonely. If you are squeezing your writing into a busy day, the solitude can be a relief, but it is still you, writing silently.
We urge you to speak up! At some time (usually multiple times!) in every writing project, you need to find a person and actually speak.
Why Should You Talk?
You think while you talk. How often do you say to a friend or family member, “Can I talk this over?” or “Would you like to talk about it?” or “I was saying to our friend….” You do think through your ideas using speech.
But the unwritten rules in academia are “Don’t admit that you’re unsure,” or “Don’t let anyone know what you’re thinking.”
It’s time to contradict those messages! We’re all unsure at some point in our writing! There’s no shame in sharing your partially-formed ideas!
When you speak, you have to make sense. You can hear your unclear places much better when you actually use your voice. That’s the reason that writing experts recommend reading your written work out loud: what makes sense to your eye does not necessarily make sense to your ear.
Talking with someone else also reduces the isolation we can experience. As important as solitude is, and as valuable as written exchanges between scholars are, spoken interaction is one of the best tools in your writing kit.
When Should you Talk?
Talking with another person is a big, scary step, but it pays big dividends. Some strategic points in your writing process that call for conversation are:
- You are excited about a new idea and thinking through its potential
- You are stuck in your project and can’t quite work out how to frame a key argument
- You are debating between two organizational structures
- You are shifting gears, such as moving to revision
- The writing will be presented orally, as at a conference or in an interview
- You are just plain stuck and feel hopeless
Who Should You Talk With?
The best person to talk with depends on the stage of your project. For example:
Find someone who is ……..
You are just starting out, with free writing or a Zero Draft (not even a first draft)
…a friend and very gentle and will listen to you charitably as you fumble around
You are figuring out whether you are finished, or whether you need to back to more research
…a fellow writer and would know what questions to ask you
You are checking that your major argument fits well in the literature of your discipline
…even more well established than you: a mentor or senior colleague
You are framing your focus statement, or the “elevator speech” you use to answer the question, “and what are YOU working on?”
…a good listener who loves you. A mom can do it, a spouse if not too busy, and a precocious nine-year old is perfect.
You are almost ready to rehearse your conference or interview presentation
…as above. These wonderful folks love graphics too!
What Should You Talk About?
Framing a conversation about your work maximizes its value for you, and also maximizes your chances to ask again. Here are some phrases to employ:
- Could I talk over my ideas for this project with you?
- I’d like you to listen and take notes, and then tell me what you heard me saying.
- If you don’t understand something, would you stop me so I can clarify?
- These are my goals. After you listen, could you tell me whether you think I met them?
- I want to talk about this challenge with you. Can I think out loud about the pros and cons?
- My feelings say this is hopeless, but I believe it is actually feasible. Could you convince me that my feelings are wrong?
- I will buy the coffee.
It’s time to talk!
Boice, Robert. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Needham Heights MA: Allyn and Bacon.