It was the late Christopher Hitchens who famously said: “if you can talk, no really talk, then you can write.” But he was not alone in making explicit the connection between the ability to speak well and to write well.
The qualities commonly associated with writing well–reading, study, silence, and thought–may not appear to sit comfortably with the skills required for delivering a dynamic speech. As Arthur Krystal writes: “Wonderful writers might … turn out to be only so-so conversationalists, and people capable of telling great stories waddle like ducks out of water when they attempt to write.” But for those writers who are prepared to explore the power of speaking to improve their writing, the rewards can be great.
Get to the Point
There is a high degree of consensus about the ways speaking may assist with good writing. Mark Twain said, “If you want me to give a two-hour presentation, I am ready today, if you want only a five-minute speech, it’ll take two weeks to prepare.” The lesson: speaking concisely requires more preparation than rambling. The same is true for writing!
Winston Churchill was both an exemplary orator and writer, winning a Nobel Prize for Literature for his six-volume memoir of World War II. The skills he demonstrated in both forms of communication included:
- Get straight to the point
- Don’t flinch from the truth
- Paint a picture with your words
- Use short, simple words
Rhythm and Flow
Speaking and writing do engage different parts of the brain. But this doesn’t mean the skills that good speakers use are not directly relevant to writing. Think of the rhythm and flow of the greatest speeches of our time. Consider the flow of Churchill’s, “We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and on the street; we shall fight in the hills, and we shall never surrender.” Read the words aloud and listen to the rhythm.
Rhythm is used to build anticipation and tension. Alternatively, rhythm can instill a sense of tranquility and calm. Read your prose aloud to determine whether your rhythm and flow are apparent in your written word. Reading your written words out loud can also help to clarify ideas. It will also help you eliminate superfluous words and catch grammatical errors. If there is a problem with your organization–your flow–reading it out loud will make the transgression obvious. Another person acting as a sounding board can also provide valuable feedback on the flow of your story as well as being a useful way to brainstorm ideas.
But perhaps the most important connection between speaking and writing–and the reason why Hitchens said what he did–is the question of passion. If there’s one thing that separates good writers from great writers, it’s passion. When you care about what you’re saying, your audience can tell. Whether you’re speaking or writing, bring passion to your writing and it will flourish.
By Stephen Rainbow