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Incorporating Elements of Speech into Writing

by Tom Johnson on Sep 18, 2012 •
categories: technical-writing 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."

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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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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.