Why Writers Fail At Talking

The_bookkeeper_by_van_Dijk More than once when I’ve given directions or tried to explain something to people, I later discovered they received a completely different idea from my words than I intended. In trying to figure out what I said and what they heard, often I find they have a different complete picture based on what I told them. Everything I said fit into their mental model, but later I realized he or she took away something I never intended.

The more I write, the worse this seems to get. I began to wonder why it’s possible for me to describe imaginary worlds credibly, but not real world situations. How could I express characters and emotions in my stories to where people cry or cheer, but fail to correctly communicate something as simple as directions to a store?

This puzzle bubbled in my brain, resurfacing occasionally before falling back into the depths. Recently the same engine that often combines ideas to bring me epiphanies, which then inspire my writing, managed to make a connection about this real world enigma. The answer comes in part from one of my favorite books, On Writing by Stephen King, wherein he gives an excellent explanation of how writers tap into the imagination of readers. (For another great book on writing, free on-line, check out Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.)

In stories, writers walk a tight-rope of description. Too little, and the reader’s imagination won’t be engaged and they will find the story boring. Too much, and the pace drops to a snail’s crawl, again leaving the reader bored. In a world full of amazing media, an author cannot afford to lose readers to boredom. So this skill is vital- perhaps the most important thing a writer does. Keeping the reader engaged instead of checking their recent texts is the minimum level for a good author. Writing description, therefore, is a negotiation between author and reader. The author has to put in visual details to catch the reader. “A nervous guy walked up and hit on her,” is far less engaging than, “He played with the hem of his red sports jersey as he stepped closer to her and said, ‘Have I seen you in this club before?'” On the other hand, it’s just as bad to over-do it and write, “He had sandy blond hair that stuck out at the sides like he just took off a hat. He kind of half-strutted as he moved toward her, making sure not to let anybody dancing to the annoying hip-hop music step on his new white Nike shoes with red laces. The people around him were making it hard for him. He was obviously nervous. He kept pulling at the hem of his red sports jersey, sometimes wrapping one of his fingers up in it before pulling free so the fabric unrolled back to cover his black webbed belt and the low pockets of his oversized denim pants. The giant number forty-seven on the front became the focal point as he approached. His lips moved just a little as he worked up the courage to talk to her by testing out several lines. After a painfully long time crossing the wooden floor, he finally made eye contact with his blue eyes, but only for a second. Then he turned his tanned, wide face away before half-mumbling the words, ‘Have I seen you in this club before?'”

That’s the trick. Most of that long description at the end overwrites assumptions already made by the reader. The details like the number on the jersey or the color of his eyes can be filled in by the reader’s imagination or ignored if they aren’t important to that specific reader. So good authors leave as much out as they can in order to move the story along quickly and keep the movie rolling. As with all art, it’s what the artist leaves out which makes the difference.

There’s the answer, too. Authors work hard to express a lot of information by tapping into the reader’s imagination to fill in the parts not said if they aren’t important. A good story feeds just enough detail to grab their attention and express what is important. However, good verbal communication requires the listener to get all their information from the one speaking, in order to have full and meaningful directions. In a book, nobody really has to drive to the destination or find the correct drawer for a specific tool. So authors gloss over those details in order to pick up the pace. Face to face, the same trick has terrible side effects. By giving a few details to anchor the conversation, the one receiving directions believes they know what they are being told because their mind can “see” it clearly. Then they fill in all the interstices automatically, substituting their own ideas for anything not spoken. The result? A complete miscommunication with vague or misleading directions or badly explained ideas.

Perhaps there’s more to it. Maybe verbal and written communication skills just aren’t transferrable. Yet I believe I’ve stumbled upon something. I don’t know the solution. The two ability sets seem to oppose each other in this light. Alas, understanding this won’t give me any good excuse for being a bad verbal communicator, but it might give me some cold comfort.


One thought on “Why Writers Fail At Talking

  1. Excellent observations. I have communicated with you enough to know what you are talking about.

    There seems to be opposite ends of the spectrum of effective written communication and both extremes attain the same results—poor communication. You have sometimes done as you described, minimizing your words, relying on my ability to grasp implied emotions or unmentioned details. The result is that I would sometimes fail to grasp your meaning accurately. I, on the other hand, try never to risk misstating my meaning. Thus, I end up with long fully-detailed statements that I image may be somewhat boring to read. Thus you are likely tempted to skim through my long diatribes. The result is that you sometimes fail to grasp my meaning accurately.

    The key seems to be (as you explained) to avoid those extremes. We cannot assume that the reader understands anything that we did not fully describe-which implies that our paragraphs should be lengthy. But the reader does not want to read anything that is already understood-which implies that our paragraphs should be minimal. So, we are tasked with estimating what must be explained to the vast majority of our readers while leaving out that which the majority of our readers can likely figure out for themselves.

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