February 1, 2016 @ 12:09 PM

Striving to be a Better Writer? Know the Difference Between Written & Spoken Words

The goal of any writer is to communicate ideas to the reader. How we do that depends on the genre. How well we do it depends on our skill with word selection and in using grammar and punctuation to clearly express our ideas.

Written words vs speech. Modern writers experimented with making the written word read just like the spoken word. Mark Twain used southern American slave dialect to flesh out his character, Jim, and southern backwoods expressions to make Huck Finn jump off the page. Later, William Faulkner used a "stream-of-consciousness" technique to bring us into the minds of his characters to show us what they were thinking. The two experiments had something in common: they were difficult to read. They may have enriched the tales but at a cost. They took us out of the story until we mastered reading the regionally idiomatic, spoken words. Each region has its own idiomatic phrases which make it difficult for someone from another geographic location to understand, sometimes even within context. ("All hat and no cattle" is not easily understood from the plain meaning of each of the component words.)

Twain and Faulkner's writings taught us a great lesson in the differences between the written word and the spoken word. When we speak, we use regional dialects and idiomatic expressions. Speaking aloud is stream-of-consciousness. We often switch thoughts in mid-stream. The conversation flows but we sometimes interrupt each other and do not finish thoughts before breaking into a completely different subject.

All of that is ok because when we speak we communicate in real-time. We have time to correct any misunderstandings or laugh at inappropriate words. Our vocal inflections signal our tone and our mood. Our hesitations and pauses indicate breaks in our thoughts. Today, most of us communicate by email or text message when we send a short "note". Both of those mediums allow an immediate response in real-time, too, just like conversations. We use abbreviations like LOL and TTYL and we can attach emoticons to telegraph our satirical or sad or happy intent. Email and text messaging are more like oral speech than writing -- although they contain elements of both.

Style and the written word. When friends speak to each other, we do not have to think about our style. We are ourselves. We know each other so we understand the sense of humor or the way we phrase certain thoughts. When we commit our thoughts to writing, we need proper punctuation to let the reader know where the breaks and pauses happen. We need proper grammar so that we communicate our intended thoughts in such a way that the reader understands that original intent. These precepts are true of all written communication. What is not the same for all writing is the style in which we write.

To communicate effectively, we need to know our particular audience and write specifically for them. Writing legal documents, for example, is a very different style of writing from writing for secondary school educational purposes. Writing a novel is different from writing a news release or a news article.

When we talk about style, we mean the manner in which a writer "speaks" to his audience. We mean the "voice" that a writer uses. We mean that glimpse into the author's personality that comes through the written words to create a picture and a voice in our minds. At its core, a writer's style encompasses the writer's perception of his audience. Style molds our work and gives it character.

Blogging is a special kind of writing. Blogging is a writing genre of its own. What may have started out as pure copy writing for marketing has morphed into content writing with a different purpose. Still with an  inbound marketing focus, blogging has become an educational tool. Clients want to attract visitors to their websites but they also want valuable and educational content to bring them there. Blog writing, in this instance, requires the voice of a trusted source, an understanding of the audience's educational level and subject matter level, and the needs of that audience. The tone is sometimes promotional, sometimes topical; sometimes light-hearted, sometimes newsy. These are all qualities best expressed by the appropriate words selected, by the format and, of course, the correct grammar and punctuation. A blogger's voice may indicate a friendly or casual tone but probably does not work if idiomatic phrases prevail in the extreme.

So why do writers write? We write to create a lasting picture with words. Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, we want to create a picture in the reader's mind. And we want that picture, that story, to endure. Spoken words hit the air and then vanish in the vapor. We cannot recapture them except to repeat them in the oral tradition. Even then, the re-telling often changes the original telling. Written words whether committed to paper or digitally preserved on the internet, are immortal -- or as close to immortality as humans come. Outside elements can destroy them. We can delete them from our computers by accident or design but our intent is that they will last through the ages.

We all strive to write better because stories that live popularly through the ages only do so if readers understand them, identify with them, and value them. To accomplish that, we must communicate precisely and effectively. We must respect grammar and punctuation rules. We must choose wisely our words and our style.