Writing is dead; long live writing!
It’s easy for us to overlook the complexity and ingenuity of writing. What many of us learned in our first couple years of school took all of humanity several thousand years to develop. associating arbitrary shapes with arbitrary sounds to create socially determined, arbitrary meaning takes a massive amount of cultural training and coordination. All that collective effort must be worthwhile, or else we wouldn’t persist in exerting ourselves, right? Teaching (nearly) everyone to read creates a population that can (mostly) share information through (more or less) permanent forms of communication. In other words, our society goes through the trouble of making people literate because we can communicate more easily with each other.
With an ever-expanding population, humans need ways to reach consensus in large groups. Engaging in discourse via documented writing is far easier than relying only on live, oral debate. Evidence of the influence of writing can even be seen in television broadcasts. On-camera personalities often memorize a written script or read live from a pre-written teleprompter. Popular podcasts run from pre-authored scripts, as do movies, plays, and most radio programs. Basically, we expect the material we consume to be pre-scripted and refined. Writing makes modern communication work. Writing even shapes the sound of our ideas. You’re hearing these words inside your head as you read them. You can tell how confident and prepared someone is by how they deliver their ideas. And you get a sense of feeling and vitality though the spoken word that’s missing in the written. Think of the last time you heard someone break down when reading an epitaph that they wrote. Emotions live in enacted language, not writing.
Sound: The Life and Death of Writing
In his comments on speaking, writing, and literacy, J. D. Applen contrasts the persistence of writing with the ephemeral nature of spoken language. Paraphrasing Walter Ong, Applen writes, “The written word lives on forever, … whereas words that were spoken in lively but evanescent debate, and never written down, are dead.” Spoken language has a life to it that the written word cannot capture. Though writing gives us abilities speech cannot duplicate, we sacrifice something when we commit our words to writing. No matter how clear an author’s sense of voice might be, we lose the sound of their words—their vitality.
In the classroom, when talking with students about texts they’re composing or revising on the spot, they’ll often ask me to read something and give them my thoughts. My instinct has always been to ask students to read the text to me, instead. For years, I thought physical practicality drove my decision. Reading tiny text off a laptop screen is tough without getting awkwardly close to the laptop’s owner. But after re-reading Kathleen Blake Yancey’s famous “Definition, Intersection, and Difference—Mapping the Landscape of Voice,” I realized there’s more to it. When a student reads me something they’ve written, I can hear where they’re uncertain. I can tell what part of the sentence they’re most interested in, curious about, or struggling with. I lose all that information if a student sits silently while I read the “dead” words written on the screen.
By asking students to read text aloud, I ask them to re-animate their words and provide more information that helps understand the text’s effect.