Talk to write

If you can talk, you can write, I used to tell students when I was invited to speak to English classes. (As an op-ed columnist, I got many invitations.) Talking is using words to communicate. So is writing. If you get stuck trying to write, imagine telling a friend whatever it is you have to say. Then write it down.  You no longer have your voice, gestures or expression to carry the meaning, so you’ll have to rewrite it to make it clear. But you’ve got a start.

People don’t get talker’s block, writes Seth Godin. So why is writer’s block so common?

. . . we’re in the habit of talking without a lot of concern for whether or not our inane blather will come back to haunt us. Talk is cheap.

. . . We talk poorly and then, eventually (or sometimes), we talk smart. We get better at talking precisely because we talk. We see what works and what doesn’t, and if we’re insightful, do more of what works. How can one get talker’s block after all this practice?

Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.

Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.

Godin advocates writing in public on a blog or microbloging site, such as Squidoo or Tumblr.

Do it every day. Every single day. Not a diary, not fiction, but analysis. Clear, crisp, honest writing about what you see in the world. Or want to see. Or teach (in writing). Tell us how to do something.

If you know you have to write something every single day, even a paragraph, you will improve your writing.

. . . Write like you talk. Often.

Teachers should model writing often and publicly, adds Karl Fisch, a math teacher turned high school technology director.

I agre that writing for an audience ismore useful than writing a journal nobody will read. Writing is communicating.

Schools are so busy teaching the writing process — graphic organizers and topic sentences — that they don’t teach students to write, argues Paula Stacey in Ed Week.

She’s taught writing at every level from elementary school to college.

  . . . in the name of writing instruction (students) are being asked to jump through an ever-expanding and increasingly byzantine set of hoops, but who less and less often are being asked to write. They may be able to create thesis statements and topic sentences, find details, write conclusions, and follow Modern Language Association style, but somewhere in there very little actual thought is taking place. In our desire to help students engage in the process of writing, we have defined a process that really isn’t writing.

As a third-grade teacher, she was required to teach instructional, descriptive, expository, and narrative writing.

 To assist students and teachers, the publishers of the curriculum had included numerous graphic organizers, brainstorming worksheets, and step-by-step instructions on the process of generating and organizing ideas. . . . I wasn’t instructing students in writing so much as dragging them through the process outlined in the worksheets. “Just tell me what to put here!” students entreated. “Is this right? Is this what you want?”

At a local high school, all essays must contain “exactly three central paragraphs containing exactly eight sentences: topic sentence, detail sentence, commentary sentence, another detail sentence, another commentary sentence, a final detail sentence, a final commentary sentence, and a concluding sentence.”

Meanwhile, college professors complain their students can’t develop a complex idea in writing.

My proposal is modest, cheap, and deceptively simple: Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions. Questions and answers. Nothing fancy. Much like home cooking, however, this kind of questioning takes time, it requires practice and honing, and the kitchen is a mess afterwards. But it is worth the trouble and the mess, for in this back and forth, this conference between teacher and student, real thinking and the work of real writing occur.

I spent four solid years of high school writing the 3-3-3 paragraph. Each topic sentence had to be supported with three “concrete and specific details.” Learning to support assertions is good. But you’ve got to have something to assert.

When my daughter was in school, she was required to draw a picture or diagram showing her creative process. It wasn’t a useful way to organize her ideas, but she could write the assignment and then draw idea bubbles to match.

About Joanne


  1. It’s refreshing to read something sensible on the teaching of writing.

  2. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I get talker’s block more often than writer’s block. Really? People never get tongue-tied or don’t know what to say? Awkward silences?

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ms. Stacey has the best of this discussion: the key issue here is thinking, not talking or writing.

    Talking sensibly about something requires that you be able to think sensibly about it. It also requires vocabulary — I have had a number of students who clearly have recognized the existence of a concept or situation or relation, but who just don’t have the words to express what they can see is the case. Oftentimes the best they can do is something extremely vague, like “X is related to Y”.

    Vocabulary is king when it comes to thinking, not because we necessarily think in words (I don’t… though most of my colleagues seem to) but because words clarify our thinking and provide us with necessary “chunking” for higher-level thought.

  4. GoogleMaster says:

    “. . . we’re in the habit of talking without a lot of concern for whether or not our inane blather will come back to haunt us. Talk is cheap.”

    Spoken like an extravert. We introverts think about everything we say about six times before we say it.

  5. Mervelle Sage says:

    Quite frankly, what i have noticed is freshmen students who come to college barely knowing subject-verb agreement. I agree being able to speak with a high vocabulary can enable a student to write, however if the student does not grasp the sense of grammar and understanding of how to use said vocabluary in the correct sentence sturcture then all is lost. Each level of education needs to build upon each other in order for adequate writers to be produced and ready for college level writing.

  6. Obi-Wandreas says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into the following scenario: Student has problem which requires a written explanation. Student arrives at correct answer. I ask student how they arrived at the answer. Student gives a full, complete, and cogent explanation. I reply to student “Perfect! Write down exactly what you told me.” What ends up on paper is, to put it diplomatically, gibberish.

    The problem, for many, is an actual inability to write – they know exactly what to say, they just can’t put it down on paper.

  7. Cranberry says:

    Mervelle Sage, perhaps you could explain that point to the National Council of Teachers of English? Their standards don’t mention grammar: Maybe it’s included in these standards:

    3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
    4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

    Are “sentence structure” and “conventions, style” grammar in disguise? It would be nice to see the NCTE come out with a clear sentence, such as, “Students will write grammatically correct sentences,” rather than, “Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.”

    Perhaps the inability to write has been carefully taught.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Conventions is grammar, yes. Sentence structure is also grammar to some extent (ie. the four sentence types). There’s a reason for the change in tems, but I don’t have the energy to go into the descriptivist-prescriptivist hornswaggle.

  8. Writing is not something that can be taught or learned quickly and written language is different than spoken language, and the conventions are different for different kinds of writing. For example, a personal letter (or email) to a friend assumes common knowledge; a letter to a business about a job opening does not. For average kids, it takes at least 8-10 years to be able to write grammatically correct, fluent English for everyday use; business and personal letters, resumes, directions, notices, letters to the editor and the like. That was achieved by the end of 8th grade for most of my classmates (small-town school, in 50s). However, that requires that the foundation be laid in the early grades (same for math and the disciplines) and I don’t see that happening. Grammar and composition need to be taught explicitly (and I do NOT mean Writer’s Workshop!!) K-5 schools seem to have abandoned the idea that they are responsible for establishing a base of knowledge and skills that MS and HS will expand. By the time they enter MS, far too many kids (in some schools/districts, the majority) are seriously behind and many will never catch up.