Talking It Out vs. Writing It Down

When students get stuck in the process of writing an academic essay, instructors will sometimes advise them to try talking it out. Take a break from the sometimes paralyzing blink of the cursor, we may suggest, and move into that more comfortable space of speaking. Find someone and try to explain to them what you’re struggling to express on the page. Once you’ve talked out the ideas, you can then write them down.

This advice is well targeted in many ways. Students, like pretty much everyone else, can get intimidated by the act of writing, especially in a formal academic register. When any of us are staring at a document, rather than looking at a person, we can lose our sense of audience and perhaps even our sense of purpose in articulating whatever it is that we’re trying to say. For students in particular, the act of “writing a paper” can also be stifling. Students often bring to the academic writing process fairly restrictive ideas about what it means to write “formally,” ideas that can lead to stilted prose—or to writer’s block and no prose at all. For all these reasons, advising students to turn to talk when they’re stuck as writers can be useful.

That said, the last bit of the advice—“then just write it down”—oversimplifies the relationship between talk and academic writing. While we don’t want students to feel stifled by the language of formal academic prose, they do need to understand the specific features that characterize written academic language and be able to manipulate those features for their own writerly purposes. For this reason, it can be enormously beneficial for students to explore how the language of academic prose differs from the way we talk, even when we talk formally.

“Explore” is a key word here. We need to let students become investigators of academic language, not just digesters of it, as part of the process of developing their academic writing. Modern technology, in the form of online corpora, can lend tremendous support to instructors’ efforts to foster such exploration.

In my own teaching, I rely heavily on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). One of the registers in COCA comprises transcripts of spoken language from radio and television programs, another comprises academic writing from a range of disciplines. Students, therefore, can pursue their own queries comparing spoken language with written academic language.

I sometimes get students started by asking them to do some simple searches, such as for the word however; they quickly discover that the word however appears nine times more often in academic prose than in speech. In contrast, the word but is twice as common in spoken language. Other conjunctive adverbials that characterize academic writing, as COCA shows them: in contrast, thus, therefore, in sum, notably, interestingly, and in general (whereas generally speaking is more common in the spoken language).

Section Spoken Fiction Magazine Newspaper Academic
Number of occurrences of however 9,331 10,360 34,960 22,924 81,689
Frequency per million words 97.64 114.156 365.85 249.94 897.03


Students and I often talk about how academics hedge their arguments, when we address what I mean by a “strong argument” (i.e., an argument that is specific, persuasive, and nuanced, not an argument that is sweeping and unmitigated). Academics use perhaps, not maybe in their writing; and in comparison with other registers, academics also use a good amount of arguably, [this/it] suggests, could be read, and potentially. (Of course, each of these terms occurs in a specific context, and students can dig down in COCA to examine the context to see exactly what authors are hedging.)

To take another example, studies show that—as compared with spoken language—academic prose presents information in dense ways, packing a lot of information into fewer words. To do this, academic prose relies more heavily on nominal phrases (e.g., the formation of occupational aspirations in grade school) instead of strings of verbs (e.g., as grade-school children form ideas about what they aspire to do professionally). How can we see this in the corpus? Together the students and I can look up, for instance, the noun formation: Interestingly, it occurs about 14 times more often in academic prose than in speech. In speech, we tend to “form things”; in academic writing, we are more likely to talk about “the formation of things.” A noun like development, which again takes a process and turns it into a noun, is also highly academic: It occurs almost 12 times more often in academic prose than in speech. A verb like grow is less specialized and actually occurs more often in speech than in academic writing; the noun growth, however, which allows academics to package information about what is growing into a noun phrase, is more than five times more common in academic writing. The corpus reveals how we deliver information differently in different contexts.

These few examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Once students get comfortable with resources like COCA, they can explore their own questions. For example, when and how do published academics use the first-person pronoun I? When do these writers tell their readers to consider something (e.g., “Consider the case … ”)? (This is a move we don’t make nearly as often in speech.) In the process of exploring how the language of academic prose differs from speech, students become ever more self-aware and sophisticated speakers, readers, and writers.

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