Want to write better? Step away from the keyboard, and speak.

There’s a difference between the two forms of communication. The written word is visual, whereas the spoken word is auditory. That sounds obvious, but here’s what’s important about that difference:

Speech is intrinsically tied to time: you hear it one word at a time.

Written text is a bunch of symbols that are all already on the page. It’s possible to write and consume it out of sequence.

It’s easy to write a great paragraph that has no link to what came before or what follows.

This is something you just can’t do with speech. When speaking, you have to start with the setup, and then take the listener through each beat until you reach the conclusion.

Speaking forces you to consider the narrative momentum of your arguments.

When writing, it’s very easy to write an article that is just a collection of points. When speaking out loud, you instantly feel awkward when you switch to an unrelated point without the requisite transition.

How to use speaking

Speaking can be used as a tool to develop your article. It can also be used to refine and edit what you’ve already written. In either case, here’s what you do:

  1. Step away from the desk. You want to use the speaking part of your brain, so put away your notes or text.
  2. Start at the top of the section you’re working on, and talk through your points. Think of this as a lesson or speech that you’re giving. When you get stuck, you can stop to think or consult your notes. The start at the top and go again.
  3. Do not take notes as you speak. Unless you have a spark of brilliance that you must absolutely preserve on paper, stay away from any note taking. Iterate on the text entirely orally. Use your memory as a quality filter: if you are forgetting something, chances are it doesn’t belong there. In a cohesive argument, every sentence shows up exactly when needed. If you’re forgetting lines, it might be because you’re delivering a bunch of unrelated points. Try to find a better order and try again.
  4. 1–2 minute is probably all you can hold in your head without memorization. At that point, come back to your desk and start writing.

Things to watch for

Speech has some distinct characteristics that don’t translate well to the page:

  • When speaking, we are prone to repeating ourselves. On the written page, needless repetition stands out.
  • Speech is often filled with very long sentences that can still be understood because of tone and pacing. Writing is visual, and a wall of text looks intimidating.

When writing, remember that you are not transcribing a speech. You are adapting it for text. You will need to break up sentences. You will need to use punctuation and whitespace to bring out the article’s structure. Speaking helps you with structure and flow, but can produce poorer sentences. Bring out your inner writer and editor to fix those problems.

The point is not that speaking is better than writing. It’s about forcing the article through the speech, writing, and editing parts of your brain. Each brings a different set of competencies to the table, and all of that benefits your article.

You may not think you’re a great writer. Maybe you don’t think you’re a great speaker or editor either. But by involving all three, you get to cheat. You’re rigging the game, and bringing three of you to the fight.

Want to write better? Step away from the keyboard, and speak.

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