You, the writer

Speaking vs. Writing

Speaking vs writing 1: Alan buys milk

Another way to think about what’s involved in writing clearly is to think about the differences between speaking and writing. Because both use words, we assume they are the same but they are very different. The following example will help you think about the differences. Picture this: it’s Saturday morning, the family’s just sat down to breakfast when Dad realises there’s no milk. So he asks his eldest son Alan to go and get some. He says: “Drat! No milk – I can’t eat my cornflakes without some nice cold milk. Just pop out to the mini-mart, would you Alan? Better get a two pinta. Oh, and you’ll find some money in my jacket pocket.”

Speaking vs writing 2: a robot buys milk

Now picture this: imagine you had to write a computer program to tell a robot to go and buy milk. Where would you start? You would have to think of the most logical order for all the actions the robot would need to perform in order to buy milk. Dad’s instruction to Alan assumes that Alan already knows all sorts of information: where his jacket is, which pocket he usually keeps his money, where the mini-mart is, the visual difference between a one pint and two pint carton. The robot will know none of these things unless you put them in the program. You would also have to give the program a logical name or title so that when the program loaded the robot’s brain would be able to distinguish it from all the other programs in its memory. So in your writing at university, don’t be afraid to be obvious. One of the reasons tutors set essays is so you can show what you know.

Speaking vs writing 3: look at me when I’m talking to you

Another crucial difference between speaking and writing is that we can see people when we talk to them. We transmit and receive all sorts of non-verbal information when we’re talking to them. Think about the effect it has on you when someone talks to you but keeps staring at the floor and never looks at you once. We communicate all sorts of information by facial expression, hand gestures, tone of voice. We can’t do any of these things in a piece of writing. We have to find different ways of doing them; and we have to be sure that our writing isn’t doing things we don’t want it to.

Speaking vs writing 4: know what I mean?

Another crucial difference between speaking and writing is that speaking is informal, less structured, more colloquial – know what I mean? When we speak, we often start sentences in the middle. An important part of writing at university is to understand who you are writing for. To put this another way, when you are writing an essay you are not down the pub with your mates. In an essay, you can’t put things like the following sentence I once read in a first draft: “Apparently, imperialism has been going for ages – how weird is that?” The person who reads your essay will expect you to write in a serious and considered way.