writing is just the beginning: the tradeoff between clarity and exploration with writing and conversing



~4 min read


709 words

But you’re never going to achieve what you want to, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.

R.P. Blackmur via ‘Working’ Review: ‘Just Remember: Turn Every Page’

When we want to make a point as humans, we communicate. Two mediums of communication are speaking and writing - similar in so many ways. Yet, I find thinking about the differences to be important as understanding them is informative not just for when you choose to utilize the tool, but particularly when you are on the receiving end. When you listen to someone speak or read what someone wrote - though that person may have had a similar intent in both cases, I think the ways we view them are more different than we often acknowledge.

The use of the spoken or written word is really context specific. The choice is a natural extension of what’s available. If I’m trying to talk to many people all at once across time and space, writing is more appropriate. Recording and broadcasting technologies blur this line - but I’ll ignore that for now.

This observation may seem mundane, but understanding how we pick our tools and the limitations imposed by those tools as a result is relevant. The tools affect how we, the audience, perceive the speaker. We just forget it too often. As readers, if we recognize writing deprives authors of essential tools of communication, we may come to see that the strong opinions presented are likely more a consequence of the medium than the mind delivering them.

Writing necessitates the distillation of human communication to words on a page. This process strips writers of tools that we as humans use every day in conversation. Tools like body language, intonation, and any other form of non-verbal communication. Further, writers do not have the ability to receive immediate feedback to which they can respond punctually! These absences lead directly to a medium that demands precision and limits the opportunity to explore a topic.

Writers are supposed to have the answer - or at a minimum, an opinion. That’s why most writing eschews caveats while asserting a conclusion. Look again at Blackmur’s advice - it’s not that you’re not supposed to think - it’s that thinking is not supposed to be present in writing. Said another way, writing is post-thought and the words on the page are the product, not the process.

Conversations are much more dynamic because the best ones couple thinking with the conversation. Think about how boring a conversation would be if both sides came to the table already knowing everything about their position and being unwilling to even entertain the other side’s perspective. This may happen all-to-often, but it’s certainly not a desirable state -which, of course, is the point - conversations are about exploring a topic.

Viewed from this perspective, we can see writing like the opening salvo of a conversation. It’s one side asserting their position and opening themselves up to rebuttals and counter-points. A difference between writing and a conversation is that in writing those counterpoints may never materialize, may come from millions of different participants all-at-once, or any where in between.

This is one of writing’s superpowers: it’s asynchronicity, which means that the physical and temporal limits imposed on a conversation are shattered.

The issue then, as far as there is one, is that, as readers, we forget this. We forget that writers are participants in a conversation. They are either the entrant, putting an idea out into the world, or a respondent, taking a previously proposed notion to which they add nuance or take aim at troublesome part(s).

We may not want to write while we think, but that doesn’t mean that writing doesn’t offer similar avenues for exploration of ideas as a conversation. Writers know this - readers would be well served to remember it.

Update: I recently came across this quote that I felt was quite relevant and I didn’t want to lose track of it:

It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.

— Yoshida Kenko, Essays In Idleness

Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!