Conversation Piece

Henry James, it is said, wrote like he talked, in long, involved sentences.

“Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” – Laurence Sterne

“The great struggle of a writer is to learn to write as he would talk.”–Lincoln Steffens.

“The greatest [writers] give the impression that their style was nursed by the closest attention to colloquial speech.”–Thornton Wilder

“Good prose should resemble the conversation of a well-bred man.”–Somerset Maugham

These quotations, in their various ways, get to a deceptively simple truth about good writing. That is, it should be similar to speech, but … The “but” is expressed by Sterne in “properly managed,” by Steffens in “would,” by Wilder in “the impression,” by Maugham in “should” and “well-bred.” Everyone knows that pure speech doesn’t work on the page. Transcribe any conversation (except maybe one between John Updike and Clive James) and you will see rampant halts and starts, “um”s and “uh”s, redundancies, ellipses, grammatical solecisms, and all manner of infelicities.

That’s the chaff. Once you’ve separated out the wheat of spoken language, your writing can reap three significant benefits. One of them is diction. Given a choice of two synonymous words (funny/humorous, often/frequently, about/regarding), the simpler, more colloquial one is usually better, but weak writers make a beeline for the fancy one, and often misuse it, to boot. The critic James Wolcott once told me in an interview,

I never use words in print that I wouldn’t use in conversation. There are all these words you see in print but in fact nobody ever says. Words like “hauntingly lyrical” or “indefatigable,” which is even hard to say. … Then there are hedge-words [critics] use in negative reviews — “given such-and-such, it’s unfortunate. … ” Or “it’s lamentable.” Come on, you don’t think it’s lamentable, you’re enjoying it.

Second, straying from the usually simple syntax of spoken language can be a problem. A good example is a reliance on nominalizations, or nouns formed through the graceless annexation of other parts of speech. Helen Sword calls them “zombie nouns,” because “they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.” Writing in The New York Times, Sword reproduced a passage from an unnamed social-sciences book; I’ve italicized the zombie nouns. Note also features that customarily accompany these nouns: excessive use of prepositions (capitalized), of the weak verb to be (underlined), and of the passive voice (boldface).

The partial participation OF newcomers is by no means “disconnected” FROM the practice OF interest. Furthermore, it is also a dynamic concept. In this sense, peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a way OF gaining access TO sources FOR understanding THROUGH growing involvement. The ambiguity inherent IN peripheral participation must then be connected to issues OF legitimacy, OF the social organization OF and control OVER resources, if it is to gain its full analytical potential.

Admittedly, some people in the academy talk as well as write this way, and comparable flim-flammery can be heard in business and government meetings. But in speech, compared with writing, the inanity is more obvious.

This is not to say that everybody should write like Hemingway. But the prose of even the most literary writers — the good ones, that is — has an oral quality. William Allen White spent a lot of time with Henry James and observed that the novelist “talked, as he wrote, in long involved sentences with a little murmur-mum-mum-mum standing for parenthesis, and with all these rhetorical hooks he seemed to be poking about in his mind, fumbling through the whole basket of his conversational vocabulary, to find the exact word, which he used in talking about most ordinary matters. He seemed to create with those parentheses.”

Finally, good writing has good rhythm, which is why the single best piece of writing advice is to read your stuff aloud. If it doesn’t scan, revision is your plan.

All this has long been widely recognized, but a new psychological study suggests we only knew the half of it. “The Sound of Intellect,” an article in the June issue of Psychological Science, reports the results of an experiment in which a group of M.B.A. candidates at the University of Chicago’s business school were asked to prepare two brief pitches for prospective employers, one a written text and one an audio recording. A random group of people were asked to judge the pitches on three criteria: intellect, hiring likelihood, and general impressions. On all three measures, the audio pitches were judged significantly better.

The most important reason for this result, the authors propose, is a feature of speech: “variance in pitch,” which “may reveal the presence of an active and lively mind” and “can convey enthusiasm, interest, and active deliberation.” And all the while I thought I was getting that stuff into my scribbling!

But don’t despair, fellow scribes. The authors — Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley — allow that their results “do not indicate that it is impossible for a talented writer to overcome the limitations of text alone; they indicate only that our M.B.A. students … did not predict that they needed to overcome these limitations and did not do so spontaneously.” (Emphasis added.)

The task, apparently, is to simulate in print a speaker’s rising and falling pitch. The means of doing so would seem to be a redoubled attention to rhythm, including emphasized words (whether using real or implied italics), rhetorical questions, maybe an exclamation point here and there, and even sentence fragments. Like this. It’s worth a try, if we would endeavor to read as smart as we sound.




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