Monday, July 24, 2006

Spoken, Written, and Everything In-Between

Posted by Lara at 1:08 AM

I don’t think anyone here would argue that spoken word is drastically and fundamentally different from the written word. There are, of course, many differences between the two. Tone is a big one – how many times have you had an important dialogue through a written medium (email, letters, etc.) and wished you could actually hear and/or see the other participant, so as to better read their meanings? You know, when you read something and you think, “Is that sarcasm or sincerity?” “Is she angry or just in a hurry?” “Does he really think that or is he joking?” To a certain extent, basic mechanics differ significantly between the two as well, though that is more often a situational product; that is to say, things like word choice and grammar will often be very different in speech as opposed to writing – most often with the former being more informal than the latter – but that is more dependent on environment than anything else (I use formal and informal speech in different circumstances, just as I use formal and informal writing in different circumstances). But, as a fellow English teacher-in-training would say, I’ve been beaten over the head with the revision stick, so I’m going to be looking at the way speech and writing differ with respect to revision.

“Speech, Roland Barthes says, ‘is irreversible’:

‘A word cannot be retracted, except precisely by saying that one retracts it. To cross out here is to add: if I want to erase what I have just said, I cannot do it without showing the eraser itself (I must say: “or rather…” “I expressed myself badly…”); paradoxically, it is ephemeral speech which is indelible, not monumental writing. All that one can do in the case of a spoken utterance is to tack on another utterance.’

“What is impossible in speech is revision: like the example Barthes gives, revision in speech is an afterthought…. The spoken word cannot be revised. The possibility of revision distinguishes the written text from speech. In fact, according to Barthes, this is the essential difference between writing and speaking. When we must revise, when the very idea is subject to recursive shaping by language, then speech becomes inadequate.”
(Nancy Sommers, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.”)

And therein lies the problem, right? When I’m speaking, and I want to change what I’ve said, or how I’ve said it, I cannot do so without drawing attention to the part(s) I want to change. We discover this all the times through embarrassing verbal mistakes – Freudian slips, spoonerisms, etc. Once the words are out of my mouth, I cannot get them back. All I can do, then, is say more words, which is what people do that elicits remarks like, “Keep digging yourself out of that hole,” or “Can you get your foot any further in your mouth?” Once you call attention to the error by virtue of trying to correct it, you’ve actually made it worse. Speech cannot, by its very nature, be revised.

Writing, however, can. Not only can it be revised, but it can be revised continually, forever if one wanted. It can be revised until it is published, and even then, it can be revised and republished. In many cases, when a written work is revised, there is no record of the revision itself – or, if there is, it is not widely viewed (it stays on the author’s computer, for example). When I write a research paper, my professors never need to know how many errors and awkward phrases filled my first drafts. Instead, they will see only the final draft, which is (ideally) a polished work near perfection. Similarly, if I have something important to say to a colleague or friend, writing a letter or email allows me to carefully craft my language, think and rethink my word choices, and eventually send a coherent and well thought-out message that shows no sign of having been changed hundreds of times before being sent.

Email is slightly confusing in this debate by its more time-efficient nature. Generally, in its usage, email is not a medium for drafting and redrafting important letters. It is certainly used that way at times, but I don’t believe that is its most common use. More commonly, emails are written in a single draft and sent as soon as they are finished, which is more expedient but more prone to sloppiness. As a general rule, however, I would say emails should be considered part of the realm of the written word, because they can – and sometimes are – drafted and revised through a writing process. Instant messaging, however, is a bit more interesting to consider.

The Red Knight once said that “speed is of the essence” when using IM. IM is essentially a transcribed oral conversation. It is, perhaps, a bit more thought out than actual speech – I can type a message and delete an obvious error before sending it – but it is largely a written version of a dialogue. Because of the conversational nature, you can’t actually take too long to craft your thoughts. Sure, you might be more careful in a serious or weighty discussion – Core meetings for Tmony, for example, or discussions about relationship issues. You might craft longer messages then, too, more likely to include complete sentences and punctuation. Most IM conversations, though, are made up of short messages that convey a thought at a time, not necessarily in a complete sentence. Because of this, IM has this strange combination of written and spoken language. I write things in an IM window I wouldn’t think twice about saying, but would never otherwise write (like ‘woot,’ for example). To get back to the issue of revising, IM, although technically written, is often made up of revisions that come as afterthoughts. Often I send a message, only to realize in the next instant that I’ve left out a word, given a wrong impression, or made an unintentionally ambiguous statement. But now it’s gone – I can’t get it back – so all I can do is type another message to correct it. IM has all the ambiguity of written communication (lack of tone and facial expressions, for example) without the aid of ample revision time.

I suppose this is the point where I conclude with some nicely phrased pearl of wisdom that conveys the importance of my argument. However, I really don’t have one – I just thought this was all very interesting to think about. Whenever I write, speak, or IM now, I’m always noticing how revision (or the lack thereof) plays into the dynamics of the interaction. Maybe you will, too, now. Mostly, it’s 1am and I have school in the morning, so I have to get to bed. I could save this post, revise it tomorrow, and post it then… but blogging, for me, tends to fall more in line with IM or quick emails, and less in line with published papers. That may not be the best strategy, but it’s my strategy of choice for now. Tomorrow, when I’m more awake, we’ll see how many errors I have and decide where to go from there, okay?


Mazurka on 1:41 PM said...

Regarding email: I don't send email immediately upon completion. I set up my client with a 10 or 15 minute delay. This provides two benefits: it allows me to consider what I just wrote, applying any afterthought revisions, and also gives me a 'cooling off' period for emails written in a somewhat more heated, knee-jerk fashion :).

P.S. Remind me to tell you about the latest IM coding project I'm working on...

Mazurka on 1:42 PM said...

Regarding email: I don't send email immediately upon completion. I set up my client with a 10 or 15 minute delay. This provides two benefits: it allows me to consider what I just wrote, applying any afterthought revisions, and also gives me a 'cooling off' period for emails written in a somewhat more heated, knee-jerk fashion :).

P.S. Remind me to tell you about the latest IM coding project I'm working on...

Justin on 12:14 AM said...

At the risk of exposing my inner nerdiness, this reminds me of a paper I wrote soph or junior year on the use of disfluencies ("um", "uh," "well," "er," etc.) in IM as opposed to speech. I went back and parsed several hundred conversations I had logged on my computer, did some analysis around the specific disfluency and the context of it, checked to make sure it wasn't just my own speech patterns biasing the sample...and concluded that we use those phrases deliberately in IM, to communicate uncertainty or to nuance our statements. Deep, I know ;)

Ah, the student days...

Seeser said...

The style of my emails and IMs (though I IM so rarely now) definitely depend on my audience. Some of them come across like an official letter, and others are like a stream of consciousness conversation with no grammar rules applied. Still, there is the clear benefit of being able to think things through before you hit "send", unlike in a normal conversation where I don't always think before I speak!

lara on 1:17 PM said...

mazurka - nice repetition; for emphasis, is it? ;) how often does the 10 or 15 minutes actually come in handy for heated, knee-jerk emails? when i write those sorts of emails, i'm still pretty heated and knee-jerky 10-15 minutes later...

justin - we all already knew you were a nerd, it's all good. i'd be interested to read said paper sometime - do send!

seeser - i agree that sometimes emails can be official in their tone, depending on the purpose and audience. and yes, it is nice to have the time to think about what you're going to say instead of just blurting it out and regretting it later (i do that a lot, it seems). :)


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