Incorporating Elements of Speech into Writing

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m making my way through Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Elbow’s wants to infuse techniques from speech into writing to improve the quality of writing. I want to infuse elements of speech into video scripts so they sound more like natural speech. The book is a near perfect fit for this.

In Part 1, chapter 4, Elbow identifies about nine qualities of speech that, if applied to writing, will improve writing. More to my purposes, the speech elements will help scripts sound more like one is speaking rather than reading copy.

1. Interpersonal involvement

Speech tends to focus on “interpersonal involvement” rather than “information conveyed,” says Elbow, quoting Deborah Tannen. In other words, when we speak, we’re more aware of our audience. We use language that involves ourselves with the audience.

This may be the single largest factor accounting for the differences between speech and the written word. When speaking, you take cues from the listener; you read the listener’s face and adjust your message. You ask questions, and pause when the listener looks confused. If you write with a specific person in mind, it can help you naturally incorporate interpersonal involvement into your writing.

2. Flexible syntax

When we speak, we don’t know the structure of our sentences beforehand, so we tend to have more sophisticated, dynamic, and complex sentence structures. Sometimes the structures are chaotic and uncouth, but this wild variety can make your writing more accurately imitate patterns of speech.

3. Fewer nominalizations

Any time you can turn a verb into a noun, that’s a nominalization. For example, “Columbus discovered the new world and ushered in a new era” becomes a nominalization when changed to, “Columbus’ discovery of the new world marked a new era.” Rather than using an active form of the verb (discovered), we convert it into a noun (discovery).

In writing, look for active verbs over nominalizations. We don’t speak in nominalizations.

4. More right branching than left branching

Right branching refers to cumulative sentence structures, or adding clauses to the right of your main clause that continue to modify and add to the main clause. In contrast, left branching uses a periodic structure, putting the main clause last after introductory clauses. Speech uses more cumulative structures than periodic, so if you want to sound more natural, you should jettison the periodic sentence structures.

Cumulative example: “I read the book carefully, examining each page, and often underlining, writing in the margins, and reflecting on key concepts, knowing that this book would change my life, erratic as it was, forever.”

Periodic example: “Examining each page, with a careful methodology for underlining, annotating, and questioning the content, so as to know what new paths my life would take, I read the book carefully.”

5. Parataxis rather than hypotaxis

Parataxis juxtaposes two main clauses together without a relationship connector, whereas hypotaxis supplies a relationship between the two clauses.

Parataxis: “He lost his wallet. He didn’t have any money for food.”

Hypotaxis: “He lost his wallet, therefore he had no money for food.”

Speech uses more parataxis than hypotaxis. If you incorporate too much hypotaxis, you might begin to sound more like an executive report.

6. Pithiness

Speech sometimes has precise, memorable ways of saying things that tend to stick in our minds. If you can distill a complex idea into a pithy saying, it improves your writing and sounds more natural.

Example of pithiness (from Elbow): When he hit the deer at 100mph, he was going everywhere and nowhere at once.

Granted, pithy sayings are often clichés, so seek after original sayings.

7. Given-new structure

Speech tends to follow a “given-new structure,” as Elbow calls it. In other writing guides, I’ve seen it named “old to new.” Each sentence picks up where the previous one left off, starting with the old or given from the previous sentence and moving toward something new.

Here’s an example of given-new structure: I knew he would need some training on the new software. The software is a complex jumble of tabs and screens, arranged somewhat chaotically and confusingly, especially if you’re new to the field. These newcomers to the field — novices and amateurs — will be quite lost unless they stick closely to the help material. The help material walks them through each step of the way.

8. Process rather than product

In speech, we tend to focus more on processes, movements of objects through time, such as stories and change, rather than simply focusing on products or information. If you can see and focus on the story, it carries with it an oral rhythm and pattern that predates writing.

9. Simplicity of meaning

Speech tends to be more simple and straightforward than writing. With writing, you can bury yourself in convoluted arguments and too-clever logic, which requires readers to pause and reread your sentences over and over to understand your point. Not so with speech. With speech, people tend to be more direct, straightforward, and clear. If you’ve ever asked someone to read a passage and then put it into his or her own words, the person’s summary or paraphrase is almost invariably clearer than the original written passage.

Incorporate these techniques into your scripts and chances are when you read the script, your voice will sound more natural.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

8 thoughts on “Incorporating Elements of Speech into Writing

  1. Candra

    This post offers solid information, seriously. I’m certainly purchasing the book.

    I do wonder: How can writers incorporate interpersonal communication into their writing without access to listener cues if the audience is large?

    Does the book discuss some form of quasi-counterargument, similar to debates? I guess I’m trying to figure out if a writer should consider each possible question, confusion or request for clarification.

    Great post and thanks for the information!

    1. Tom Johnson

      Candra, re your first question, I’m not sure you how incorporate interpersonal communication into writing. He doesn’t go into much depth there. I kept thinking of the Blues Clues guy who talks to the audience and waits for responses even though the audience is absent and time-shifted.

      I made it to about page 130, and then Elbow’s interests started to diverge from mine. He talks more and more about how freewriting and stream of conscious techniques can help warm students up for writing. I don’t think there’s much treatment of quasi-counterargument. I do remember reading some of that in Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words. She encourages writers to imagine a conversation with the reader, and then approaching writing by answering questions anticipated by the reader.

      If you’re interested in reviewing and posting a guest review of Redish’s book on my site, let me know.

  2. Mark Baker

    Tom,

    Generalizations about which word forms are preferable always bug me, but seldom provoke me into responding. This, quite randomly, is an exception.

    “Columbus discovered the new world and ushered in a new era” becomes a nominalization when changed to, “Columbus’ discovery of the new world marked a new era.”

    These are not two ways of saying the same thing. The emphasis of the two sentences is very different. The noun tells you what a sentence is about. The first sentence is about Columbus. It tells the reader that Columbus is the focus of concern — the thing we should look at and consider.

    In the second sentence, “discovery” becomes the noun. This tells us that what we are really concerned with is the discovery. That fact that Columbus made the discovery is incidental. We are not focusing on Columbus here, but on the discovery and its effects.

    This is a very important distinction. It is vital to clarity and flow that you make it clear to the reader what subject you are writing about. The rule to avoid nominalization, therefore, is incorrect and misleading. We nominalize precisely to shift the emphasis of the sentence onto the action “discovery” rather than the actor “Columbus” when our interest in the the action, not the actor.

    The first sentence is preferable where the subject of discussion is Columbus. The second sentence is preferable where the subject of discussion is the discovery of the new world.

    If there is a rule to be made here, it is to make sure that the subject of your communication is the noun of your sentence.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Interesting. Thanks for commenting, Mark. I hadn’t thought about nominalizations like that, but you’re right, the focus of the sentences is totally different. I should look for a better example of a nominalization that doesn’t shift the focus of the sentence. When I do, I’ll swap it in there as an example.

      Really, although I’ve listed some rules, I think we can determine what sounds like spoken language by reading it out loud. So many of these rules are internal.

  3. Just Plain Karen

    Like Mark, I tend to disagree with your example of nominalizations, Tom, even though I thought the overall article was very helpful. I’ve posted about nominalizations on my blog several times (see http://www.write2help.com/2012/05/sufferin-suffixes-parasites.html), and the research I did for the posts taught me that nominalizations most often come from adding suffixes like -ate, -ize, and -ation to verbs: For example, “Verify the information” becomes “Seek verification for the information,” which just slows the reader down. (But here’s an irony for you: “Nominalization” itself looks like a nominalization.)

    Like I said, though. Great article. I’ll definitely consider getting the book, too.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Karen, thanks for commenting. Your comment and Mark’s helped me see nominalizations with more depth here, and I’ll try to avoid imposing blanket rules on language. I do need to swap out that nominalization example with a better one.

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