March 9, 2009

Speak Writing

Disclaimer: (More of a reminder...) This posting is one person's perspective. And as my students know, I am a big fan of wondering... a non-committal state of exploration and consideration. I also like to go through drawers and see what's in them. So please point new stuff out.

Speak writing is phenomenon I've observed in many first drafts. Maybe it is the result of us getting our ideas out on paper (or on the screen). Maybe we talk to ourselves or explain it to an imagined audience as we write-- either way it comes out as speak writing. There is a quick test to see if you've speak written. Read it out loud.

If you don't believe me -- try it. If you have a hard time reading in smoothly and trip over your own sentences chances are you've got some speak writing in your paper. I'm not doubting that it worked as you were writing it, but when you read it back you are expecting written language instead of transcribed spoken language.

There is a second layer for this strategy that I recommend to students in my Abnormal Psychology class. Quite a few students have told me this is the first time that they are being expected to write a technical or professional style paper... including fun with APA-style, a clear thesis, a long list of peer-reviewed or scholarly references, etc. This type of writing has its own conventions in terms of tone and style. Once you recognize the conventions, the "read-it-out-loud" test works in a whole new way. Do you sound like a journal article? Did you use first person? Did you use colloquial language? How about four words when two would suffice? Did you recklessly avoid the emotional appeals of adverbs?

For instance:

“…this may be considered an option, but like I said before not till they have tried all other available options…”

Want to know how I catch this type of style-incongruent speak writing? I read the section aloud with an accent that I associate with being style-congruent. Now at risk of offending someone (or delighting or entertaining someone else) my professional style editing accent of choice is some variation on a British accent (one that sounds stiffly and formally enunciated to my U.S. New Englander ears. FYI - yes there are a zillion dialects and accents within countries... the point is you have find the one that helps you stay within the style that you are writing. Apparently in my head that accent is professor-accent or academic-standard accent. This is odd because I've never had a teacher or a professor with any sort of British accent.) The editing accent for technical style was not liking the "but like I said before" part of the sentence above.

I was a late adopter of the "read-out-loud" and the "read-out-loud-with-a-style-congruent-accent" strategies. Mainly because I couldn't just write my draft. I'd try to edit as I wrote. I'm more of a "get paralyzed by every ridiculous sentence" -- sentence-by-sentence type. Therefore finishing a first draft was a major feat and a process that made me hate the assignment and avoid rereading it. So it took me a while to incorporate the write down lots of ideas -- or even speak write a draft, leave it alone for a few days, and then go about reorganizing it. I had to get over the sentence-by-sentence scrutinizing first.

The accent part started when I was reading my Qualifying Exams in graduate school. (If you don't know what "QEs" are they are one of those big, scary moments in grad school. It is a point at which you can be deemed incapable (not qualified?) and dismissed.) As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my professors had made it clear that my writing was "obscuring my ideas," and yet two 10-page papers were required for QEs. I probably looked a bit crazy. I edited by reading aloud while walking in circles around a dining room table... on and off for hours over the course of a week. I think I wore down the border of the carpet underneath the dining room table.

My suggestions to you:

1) Try reading your drafts aloud. You will hear things you don't see.

2) Consider that you may be a better editor of your writing if you use an accent or voice you associate with that style as you read your paper.

Random aside for the day:
Why does this garbage can say "Waste Please." It's polite, but we shouldn't encourage waste. Please waste. Waste please. This bugged me last year, and it bugged me this year when I was at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP). And now I am sharing with you.