Conversation is a Powerful Writing Tool

Oral storytelling is in our nature.

JoAnna Schindler
The Startup
4 min readMay 5, 2020


We all recognize that romantic image of The Writer — like Colin Firth in Love Actually, sitting at a typewriter in a secluded cottage with a stunning lakeside view. The keyword here is secluded: the writer retreats from society, away from the distractions of day to day life. No technology. No noise. No people.

Portrayals like these have taught us that writing is a solitary act. You see this perspective in the countless Medium articles that instruct you to turn off your phones before uncapping your pen. Sometimes I have the attention span of a gnat, so this sounds like good advice.

Or is it?

In my last article, I mentioned that I’ve coached college students in writing, conducting over 600 sessions in three years. When I sat down with students, I spent a portion of our time doing what you’d expect: reading through their papers, marking it up with suggestions. However, I’d host several sessions in which we didn’t look at any pages. In fact, students would book sessions with me before they’d written a single word.

What did we do for that hour? We’d study the prompt provided by the professor and discuss. I rooted my counseling methodology in the Socratic Method, a process of asking and answering questions to inspire critical thinking. The student would riff on my questions, and I would take notes, capturing their ideas. Counter to the image of the reclusive writer, I’ve found that dialogue is a crucial aspect of the writing process.

Storytelling existed long before the written word.

Here’s a friendly reminder: civilizations throughout human history relied heavily on oral storytelling. Songs, chants, spoken poetry — our ancestors would transfer stories from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

As a writing counselor, I met several students who would say, “I’m not a writer.” If we compare ourselves to Shakespeare or Stephen King or J.K. Rowling — the iconic, the prolific, the best-selling — yes, it feels questionable for everyone under the sun to call themselves a Writer. That said, I’d argue that conversation and storytelling are integral to the fabric of human civilization.

Today, we obsess over mastering our craft, losing sight of what writing is all about: connection and understanding.

Stumped? Phone a friend.

How many conversations do we have in a day with friends, family, coworkers, strangers? These interactions compel us to translate our nebulous thoughts into coherent sentences, be it our review of a Netflix show, our stance on politics, or a recap of a bad date.

We attempt to do the same with writing, don’t we? Here’s the difference: in conversation, the exactness of our grammar and the flavor of our vocabulary matters much less than the clarity of our ideas. Writing imposes a pressure to sound eloquent, as if the way we package our ideas determines their merit.

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

I’d recommend that you begin your writing project with a conversation, to prioritize clarity of thought over “eloquence.”

Here’s a quick guide:

STEP 1: Identify the questions that you’re trying to answer.

Create a prompt, as if a professor assigned you this writing project. Whether you’re writing a blog post, a poem, or a novel, chances are your work will raise or answer some questions. These questions may uncover the central topic of your work and nudge you towards a thesis. Above all, this exercise will drive you to consider the purpose of your piece and provide a starting point for exploration.

STEP 2: Talk it out.

Find a trusted partner who’s willing to be your sounding board, and don’t forget to ask them to take notes! Or, if you prefer to work alone, you can have this dialogue with yourself. I’d recommend using voice memos: press record and improvise based on the questions you outlined in Step 1. This will free you from the pressure of crafting beautiful sentences on the page before you’ve even fleshed out your point of view.

STEP 3: Organize your notes.

Mind maps, word clouds, outlines — there are several prewriting templates to choose from. While dialoging allows you to freely capture your ideas, templates provide structure. Take time to recognize the keywords, themes, and patterns that arose in your conversation. This will enable you to achieve coherency.

STEP 4: Write and revise.

Now, you can retreat to your secluded cottage and write, using your conversation notes as a roadmap. Revise for spelling, grammar, and style as needed.

STEP 5: Read it out loud and revise again.

Bonus points if you record yourself again and listen to the playback. By listening to your writing aloud, you can pick out redundancies, awkward phrasing, and meandering passages. These stylistic foibles may distract and confuse readers. Again, clarity is key.

As you embark on your next writing project, remember: the act of storytelling is as old as humankind. You already have all the tools you need to get started.



JoAnna Schindler
The Startup

Writer & technology professional, based in Los Angeles | I also write at