Why Talking is So Important to Writing
We want words, lots of them, churned out on reassuring sheets of lined paper, with curlicue cursive ‘r’s and proper punctuation reflecting both the demands of syntax and emotion. When the words fail, we resort to coercive tactics or the gentle reassurances that words are inside and they can be coaxed out.
What sometimes gets missed in this process is the power of talking. Speaking leads to writing more than any other skill. Getting words formed in the head and then out through the mouth leads to better writing. It doesn’t even matter if they are organized or concise or logical. What matters is the process of dredging them up, giving them room to develop in the mind and then speaking them through the lips by way of the tongue.
Writers make as many words available to themselves as possible. They do this by reading and speaking, speaking and reading… and then writing. There’s a powerful imitation process that gets worked out through talking too. Writers are likely to test new words in conversation before making them a part of their writing vocabularies.
I’m reminded of Jon (my husband) when he’s learning a new language. He has this endearing habit of adopting a new word and using it before he actually knows what it means. He tosses it out in conversation with a native to see the effect it has. He plays with it, attaches it to other words and behaviors. For instance, when we were in Italy three summers ago, he overheard an Italian man say to a woman “Ciao bella.” He could tell from the delivery it had something to do with a greeting or a good-bye but wasn’t entirely sure if it was formal, informal, or even strictly personal and intimate. Yet undeterred, at the next opportunity, he paid for his cappuccino and then winked at the middle-aged barista and declared, “Ciao Bella!” She burst out laughing, patted his arm several times and erupted into more Italian.
Caitrin, picking up on this habit, will often mimic actors and their lines, testing them in conversation for effect. Jacob will ask us if he’s using a word properly when he encounters a new one.
But even these strategies are only part of growing as a writer. Being able to talk to an adult in a supportive, nurturing space increases competence in articulation, in putting words together, that will lead to effective writing later. To support that process, think of these principles when you talk with your kids.
- Find time to give eye-contact and focused attention. Kids talk better and more if the audience is actually interested. You can give the best level of interest by hearing a story or talking with your child without distractions (not cooking dinner, not cleaning, not shopping). Driving seems to be okay, though, and often leads to some of the best conversations.
- Involve yourself in the interests of your child. Let your child teach you how to play a game on the Wii, or learn how to shoot baskets, or draw together while your child talks to you about art. Find a way for you to be in the role of “learner” and let your child sort through the vocabulary and sequence of events or practices to help you learn it.
- Talk about language. When you watch a Shakespeare movie or read a novel or notice a clever billboard, take time to discuss the words themselves, the effects they create, the nuances they reveal. Make words cough up their secret and share these with your kids. Even ask them to see what is funny or clever or insightful about the wording of whatever source.
- Discuss important things. Trust your kids to tackle big topics with you (according to their ages). Draw them into discussions about ideas like justice, compassion, racism, poverty, space, nature, human and animal rights, education, going green, neighborliness, death, birth, materialism, power, war, punishments and crime, and so on.
- Don’t shush your kids. It’s easy to want to turn them off when they get rolling on another narration of level 4 of Smash Mouth Brothers. I understand. Still, you need to make space for the repetitions, for the meandering so that they can sort it out. If the words stay in their heads, they don’t grow as writers as easily.
So get talking! Snacks help unleash words, too, if you have children who are more reticent to share.