Good Talker Doesn’t Equal Good Writer

A couple of readers were kind enough to ask me to elaborate on a point I made in My Last, Best 10 Tips On How To Make It As A Writer, about how talking and writing are “exact opposite uses of the language.” So here’s my case for why, even though it seems like being a good talker would make you a good writer, writing is, in fact, no more like talking than mime is like opera:

Spoken language is very much about maintaining societal mores; it’s about not offending. Speaking to others is how we get along with them, so it’s deeply grounded in ambiguity. The core, formative idea when you’re talking to people—especially in any kind of group setting—is to keep things friendly, to accommodate the thoughts and feelings of others, to be social. Talking is about cooperative give-and-take, sharing, keeping things open-ended in such a way that no one involved in the conversation feels too threatened or challenged.

Talking is about mostly about equivocation, inconclusiveness, changeableness; it’s about an ongoing, manifest, subtly communicated sense of demurral. Talking is about serving and supporting the idea that everyone’s point of view and experience is as valid as everyone else’s. That’s what “being social” means—and talking, of course, is our primary socializing tool.

Talking is about keeping things subjective, about navigating through relativism.

Writing is the exact opposite of that. Writing is about keeping things objective. It’s about assiduous absolutism. It’s about keeping everything unambiguous. Writing is about explicitness, precision, definition, elucidation, clarity. It’s about very purposeful precision, about utter decipherability.

The kind of maniacal, measured exactitude that defines good writing doesn’t in the slightest go well with socializing. It goes with no one ever inviting you anywhere because you always come off like such a conversational Nazi.

Thinking that being a good talker means you’ll be a good writer is like thinking that being a good architect means you’ll be a good shipbuilder. Same basic tools and principles; totally different, and even opposing, intents and results.

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  • Sabina

    I'm in agreement with you. At work right now there's this email dialog conflict. Some coworkers, who are usually very clear when speaking to in person are horribly off when sending email communications and offended so many people that I've had 5 meetings to clarify what this person tried to clarify in the email-talking about counter productive!

  • Kazakhnomad

    As an ESL/EFL writing teacher I have noted over and over again that my best students who write well are avid readers. Without exception. So, I would add good talkers who happen to be good readers can be good writers but it is unusual to find that mix.

    Thanks for making this clear about talking and writing. Pity those who come from an "oral tradition" where story telling is the sign of a complete or whole person and writing is woefully neglected. In Kazakhstan, I'm learning how to coax my students to WRITE and not talk in class!!!

  • Is all talking created equally? That is, here I am conversationally talking with my eyes and keyboard with you and your readers. One-on-one would be different. Face-to-face differenter… To a small group different again… To a large group… Storytelling… Speaches… Singing… Preaching… Teaching. Would all of these fall under this assessment of talking? For example, wouldn't a preacher argue that his/her spoken words were objective and absolute? (not all the time of course but during the act of preaching.)

  • Sabina: Yeah, e-mail is where the difference between talking and writing can become especially apparent. Thanks for bringing that up. And good luck there at work!

    Kaz: I/we are so interested in the work you do. Where in Russia are you?

    Ric: No, you're right, of course: All talking's not created equal. But the PRIMARY purpose of talking–the "core, formative idea" behind it, is to socialize. That's its … genesis. That's what it is first, and most often. It's the clay from which all other kinds of talking are then formed.

  • Kazakhnomad

    Actually, Almaty, where I am currently located, is in Kazakhstan the HUGE country just south of Russia. (If you think Borat, he got it way wrong about this proud land, as did the Soviets.)

    My husband and I met in Almaty 14 years ago but have mostly been teaching in Kyiv, Ukraine. We have been "called" back here to Central Asia where the soil is hard while souls are perishing. We miss Ukraine where the soil is much more fertile.

    In any case, students are the same everywhere in the former Soviet Union. After inheriting a broken down system of governance, there's much dysfunction in families, yet they are proud of their heritage which I get them to write about. From a writing teacher's point of view, however, plagiarism is rife. Where to begin when talking about writing with these students???

  • Your definition of talking and its purpose has been a real eye-opener for me this morning (literally and figuratively). After thinking on this some, I've concluded my problem isn't just unedited talking; it's that I need a whole paradigm shift on the purpose of oral conversation. I've been talking when I should've been writing and winding up as your "conversational Nazi"–ouch! Summary for me: 1) Talk less. Write more. 2) When talking, be social. When writing, be grateful for the chance to edit/revise.

    Thanks again, JS. (The comments are really good, too, by the way.)


  • Yarg.

    Kathleen, in the long run it's extremely counterproductive to adopt a conversational style that requires you to"edit/revise" your statements when you later write them . If your natural speaking style usually comes off as abrasive or confrontational you'll probably want to work on presenting your opinions in a more courteous fashion, but you *really* don't want to get into the habit of just going along with the opinions of whomever you happen to be speaking to at the time. You will eventually lose all credibility and people will stop placing value on anything you say, because they know you're just "being social" and your actual opinions may be completely different.

    Intelligent, mature people value honesty. Don't compromise your integrity just to fit in with the group you happen to be with at any given moment!

  • Hmmm… I'm writing here so I guess it's ok to strongly disagree. Last night I was reading Beuchner's Alphabet of Grace and I was thinking about how subtly and beautifully he led the reader along. And I know people who are, in person, just about as domineering and combative as possible.

    In general, writing is a solo act, whereas talk is interactive. But I think the best writing feels interactive — it invites the reader in on things. And the best talk is not so mamby-pamby as to be uninteresting.

    Sorry, John, but I don't see the clear division that you see. If there's something you're getting at that I seem to be missing, please let me know.

  • Janiece

    So many times in written communication your words get misconstrued because the reader can't see your body language. I've been on a few email lists where verbal battles ensued. If they had been talking face to face there would have been no misunderstanding.

    I think when writing, like in a book, you have to be very clear in what you say unless you are writing a fictional piece and want your readers to picture in their own minds what a character or location looks like.

    I'm in a place right now where I would like to take the hundreds of pages I've written out long hand and put them into my computer so I can edit them.

    Does anyone know of a good software program that I can use to do that? I've done some searching and found a few, but I have no idea which one is best.



  • Penlee

    Am thoroughly enjoying all this your timing is right for me God Bless

    PS I missed Writing No.2 please help.

  • You know John I wanted to talk with you about this post but I guess I'll just have to write you.


  • Kaz: Want me to post a blog speaking to them directly about … I don’t know … the power of their individual voices, or something like that? Then you could read/show it to them, and … see if starts any kind of helpful dialogue? I’d be happy/honored to do that, if you think it would help you at all.

    K.A. I like what you’ve said here very much. Nice.

  • Trace

    Yes, K.A. I like it, too.

    As I was reading John’s article, I was thinking “Oh My! I already AM a conversational Nazi!” Maybe there is hope for me yet, in writing and in conversation.

  • All I’m saying is that the reason you felt as you did reading Beuchner is because Beuchner used everything in his powers to make you feel EXACTLY that way. Through his command and art, he guided you to feel precisely as you did. As you say, it FELT interactive to you, but that’s the masterful craft of his illusion. There’s nothing wrong with what he did, of course. But in doing so–in consciously and purposefully doing everything he could to make what he did FEEL interactive to you–Beuchner excercised an entirely different set of processes than he would have had he been speaking to you directly. That’s … all I’m saying. Two different things. Not in the receiving of it, but in the delivery of it.

  • I'd just like to add that I agree with Kath's second paragraph and also with Debora's advice not to be disingenuous. What I got out of John's explanation is that I need to realize most people aren't conversing with me to be an "audience" for my ideas and opinions; whereas, if they read what I've written, they are, in effect, inviting my ideas and opinions. When people I'm conversing with do show interest in "giving me the floor," I can certainly take the opportunity but not take advantage. (A good thing to remember while writing, too.) Perhaps being gracious in conversation can encourage a writer to make that effort John was talking about to achieve that "interaction" Kath mentioned. It's just that I can reread what I've written and edit it if my thoughts are unclear or the tone is all wrong; that's what I meant by wishing I could edit my conversations. I want to apply one item (#3, wasn't it?) from John's list of 10 tips for writers to my speaking as well as to my writing: THINK FIRST! 🙂 TY, JS


  • So THAT'S what I'm doing wrong. I don't equivocate. My speech, while ostensibly social, is not particular demure. And while I do prefer writing for the ability to say PRECISELY what I mean, I also have the (clearly) bad habit when speaking of saying EXACTLY what I mean.

    No wonder people tend to misunderstand me. I am constantly having to explain to men that it is not necessary to "interpret" me. As a friend pointed out a few years ago, I am WYSIWIG. Few women are…and I think, if you are right about this (which I suspect you are) that few men are either.

    I don't know that this will cause any changes in my own personal speech, but perhaps it will make me a bit more patient with the rest of the world.

  • Penlee: I’m sorry; I don’t know what you mean by “I missed Writing No. 2.”

    Sam: Always with the joke with you!

  • Well. That's all we can ask for.

  • Sounds great. I'll do it. So tell me, what is the name of the school your students attend. I want to title it, like, "Attention, Students of [NAME?] School in Almaty, Kazakhstan!" That's right, right? Almaty, Kazakhstan?

    How fun!

  • Kazakhnomad

    Kaz: Want me to post a blog speaking to them directly about … I don’t know … the power of their individual voices, or something like that? Then you could read/show it to them, and … see if starts any kind of helpful dialogue? I’d be happy/honored to do that, if you think it would help you at all.

    John, it would be GREAT to get your thoughts on the “power of individual voice” for my Kazakh students. Last semester I had my students in Kyiv, Ukraine use this blog because we had no other platforms which I used for discussion like WebCT, Blackboard or Desire to Learn (D2L) while teaching in American universities. Instead of being frightened off by the blank sheet of paper, some of my students felt inhibited to write on a blog for the rest of the world to see and thus the did not interact with each other as I had hoped. We muddled through but I would hope to do the same with my Kazakh students eventually. My assignments would entail informal writing (blogs) vs. formal academic writing (APA or MLA research papers).

    Yes, whatever you think would be helpful for those students who think they can’t write in English or for those others who are used to “cut and paste” mentality (thanks to the former Soviet educational system), I would be most grateful. Sorry so long.

  • Hey John,

    Your response in reaching out to these Kazah students is pretty great — and, wow, the power of the Internet for doing good in the world!!


  • Kazakhnomad

    The name of the institution is: Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research. Yes, it is in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Thanks for whatever you write up, I’m looking forward to reading it and eventually deciminating to my Kazakhstani students.

  • Too perfect. I’m on it.

  • Wahid

    Hey Kaz

    I am interested in field work in Kazakhstan. I am a doctoral student studying epic and community development. I am right now in Kabul, Afghanistan and I would like to travel to Almaty in June for one week at the most. Any tips would be very much appreciated.

  • This explains a lot about me and the work environment! Aha!

    Totally agree! And I’m having fun following old links to good insights!


  • Alex Altorfer

    Interesting. I think this shows the importance of small talk as a social lubricant. I suspect people who have a hard time maintaining a social life – you know, “nerds” – read a lot and also talk as if they were reading or writing, giving others the impression that they are “conversational nazis”. By being too objective and encyclopedic in their conversations, nerds shun potential friends. Yes, relativism is important in our speech.

  • Nice job, Alex.

  • My experience has been as a storyteller and speaker that I am unable to write as well as I speak. When I am speaking before a crowd something magical happens: colorful phrases just flow out of my mouth without any premeditation. Once when I was a puppy Toastmaster I entered a contest, which I didn’t want to enter, and consequently the day of the speech did not have a speech. Walking the floor and wringing my hands did nothing to bring a speech up from the depths of the well of good speeches. Or the well was empty. I wanted to call in sick, but I had made a commitment. So, I went. I knew I was not going to win, so I asked God to give me a beginning and ending sentence and to let me speak with passion from my heart. I didn’t even have a title! And they had the nerve to ask for the title of my speech about three minutes before the actual contest started. So, I blurted out a title: “From the Heart.”

    With great passion I told them why I didn’t want to make a speech and why I didn’t want all the honorable judges and governors to think I was ignorant. It just came flowing out … my passion and colorful expressions combining to make a point – that what mattered if you wanted a good speech or story was not the ability to have perfect diction, nor to have good gestures, nor to wear the proper dress and shoes (one of the things by which the judges graded the speakers), but it was to forget all the physical stuff and speak with passion from you heart!

    I won the contest! I was astonished as I was up against veteran contest winners. But the thing that amazed me the most was that after the contest many people came up and said they loved the colorful phrases I used. I didn’t understand. So, they repeated some of the phrases for me that they thought were especially wonderful. I had never heard them before. I didn’t remember saying them either. Didn’t have a clue where they came from, but they had come from deep down inside me, from that passionate place into my speech.

    The other scary thing was that I was told I would have to do the speech again in two weeks at the next level. How could I do that? It wasn’t a prepared speech and apparently I didn’t even know what I was saying, because I was told I had said these wonderful words. With lots of prayer and talking to people about what I had said I was able to reconstruct it for the next level. I won there too. Where I failed to win was when I became so concerned about winning, not wanting to let down my club, that I let fear overcome my passion.

    For a sample of my writing, here are some blogs:

    I also read your essay on how to become a writer. I loved it! But I think I’m too old to go to college … way past the 47 year mark.

  • jesse dziedzic

    I couldnt agree with you more!!!