Talking and writing are more than just body parts.


One of the more annoying repeated conversations I’ve had goes like this. 

Me:  I’m having trouble writing. 
Them:  But you’re writing right now!
Me:  No I’m not, I’m talking to you. 
Them:  But that’s writing!

The part that I could never get them to understand is that the difference between writing and having a conversation is more than just body parts. Just because I type in conversation doesn’t make it writing. It feels different. I use totally different language (just watch me next time I talk to you and see how many times I can fit “like” into a single sentence). And I seem to be using totally different skills. 

Talking to people who use speech recognition software to write with (like Dragon Naturally Speaking) yields similar observations. Some people who are not great at conversation but who are good writers fear that they will lose their ability to write well. But they generally find that using speech  to write feels almost exactly like writing and not at all like trying to carry on a conversation. And they find it much easier than having to use speech to just talk to people. 

So next time I tell you in an informal conversation that I’m having trouble writing, please don’t try to tell me that I’m writing already just by having a conversation with you. It doesn’t work like that. 

[This post has been brought to you by the “Writing Something That I Couldn’t Write When The Situation Came Up Years Ago But That Finally Made It Into Words” mechanism. Edited to add: This one took almost exactly eight years. Just so people can be aware of how long it can go between my noticing something and being able to put it into words. Since a lot of people also assume that because I can write seemingly eloquently about one thing (possibly something that I noticed a decade or more before I could write it) then I can immediately write about all of my experiences and have none of the communication problems that go with needing to convey something important, and being unable to convey it. Things don’t work like that, either. It’d be really nice if they did, it’d probably save me a lot of trouble that unfortunately I am not saved in the real world. Additionally, just because I’ve been able to write about something once, in one situation, doesn’t mean those words will be available to me next time that I happen to need them. Communication is a lot more difficult than that, and sometimes even involves figuring out to write something, forgetting I ever figured out how to write it, and going the same amount of years before finally figuring it out again. Sometimes multiple times in a row. This is not easy, even for “simple” concepts like this one.]


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

10 responses »

  1. Maybe it’s easier for people to get confused if they have little difficulty with either writing or “conversing” and thus have a harder time understanding how a person who can do one easily might still have difficulty doing the other, at least part of the time. “Writing” of the kind you refer to here involves constructing a well-organized essay or other paper intended to convey a complex concept, or a cluster of inter-related complex concepts, in some cohesive fashion. There are a lot of complex skills involved in this task that goes well beyond simply choosing words and assembling them in grammatically correct order. Conversing usually does not involve conveying concepts quite as elaborately complex as some of the ideas we deal with in longer written works. Usually the concepts we converse about are simpler. Even if we do, in fact, discuss complex concepts, we are likely to analyze only one tiny piece of a concept in any one “turn” in a conversation. (I’m using “longer” written works here to refer to basically anything longer than maybe paragraph length, because that’s usually the maximum length one person talks/writes at a given moment when conversing before giving the other person a chance to say something.) Conversing is just not designed/structured to process concepts quite as complex as some of the concepts we typically process through writing, or at least not all at once or in quite as organized a fashion.

    I agree, it is a completely different mental process.

  2. Yeah, I’ve experienced many variants of that conversation myself (as well as the “not being able to write about something in particular at any given time, even if I’ve previously been able to write about it on one or more occasions” thing).

    There’s a lot I could say here about this phenomenon (even though I’ve actually been having a lot of trouble writing lately about most things myself). But one thing in particular that comes to mind re. what bugs me about it is when attempts to explain it (or even just state a fact about how my brain seems to operate where language is concerned) are taken to indicate that I have “ulterior motives” or are somehow trying to get away with something.

    I grew up with a near-constant sense of guilt in part due to this kind of reaction to my “inconsistent” abilities (especially in the realm of communication)…even though I couldn’t fathom what in the world my supposed ulterior motives might BE for something like that, I eventually managed to internalize the notion that I must actually just be a very lazy and selfish person who “wasn’t trying”. And it’s really only been as an adult that I’ve been able to get past some of that. And as a result I’ve definitely gotten to the point of being able to communicate more effectively, but it’s very much an “over time” thing. My abilities still wax and wane depending on various factors (some known to me, some still unknown) but now at least I don’t sit there mentally beating myself up over not being able to force words out.

  3. I can communicate through speech, but if I’m angry or tired, what comes out of my mouth basically has no value. As my condition deteriorates, the social skills needed to negotiate for what I want become harder to remember and use.

    There was a time in middle school when I behaved so badly that the teacher told me to write my parents a report on what I’d done. It ended up going something like, “Please don’t send me to this school anymore, the teachers are idiots and yell at me for mistakes I don’t understand.” When I was calm again, the teacher and I reread it and mutually agreed it was useless. Afterwords I was able to write a much more thoughtful confession, and she never again made me write about my behavior while I was still raging.

    If you are “writing” to communicate while you’re in a bad mood, your skills will also deteriorate. I probably would have made the same mistake with someone who communicates through typing that you’ve experienced, if you hadn’t told me that “writing” for communication and literary output are not the same. Thank you.

  4. I’m struggling with communication issues myself right now. I have a question for anyone who was diagnosed with autism as a child. Did ANY of the kinds of treatments you were given help? The behavioral therapy, anything? Facilitated communication? What sort of things crossed your boundaries? Was it upsetting to you to be made to sit for long periods or to be made to face things? For example, in the Temple Grandin movie when they would grab her face to face the flash cards when she looked away. Is there any sort of therapy or treatment that you would recommend as helpful rather than hurtful, such as occupational, speech etc? Can you describe such? I have nt people in my life who are also decision makers regarding my autistic child, and need exact precise details of why something is or is not ok, and me saying “it makes me uncomfortable” or “the implications scare me” is not good enough, apparently.

  5. Given the widespread use of things like AIM and other forms of online chatting, I would think that most people would understand the difference between conversational typing and actual writing. When I have a typed conversation, I type pretty much the same way as I speak, with lots of “likes” interspersed into it, as you mentioned. I write very differently.

    It seems like everyone who has ever used online chat and written an essay at some point in their lives would have personal experience of the difference. They’ve probably just never thought about the difference.

  6. This makes perfect sense to me, almost to the point of being obvious. I converse both by speech and by instant messaging, and there are a lot of similarities between the two kinds of conversation. Writing something formally – whether a blog post or a piece of academic writing – is a very different experience, and one that I usually find more difficult.

    Typed conversation (including instant messaging) and typed stand-alone texts have typing in common, but differ widely in composition and stucture. And that composition and structure is a big part of a piece of writing.

  7. Sounds very familiar.

    Just the difference between chatting on instant messenger vs writing a blog post is very noticeable to me. There’s a big difference in how I organize information; there’s the advantage of having an audience of just one person in a conversation and thus being able to tailor things to them; there’s the advantage that my audience can react in (more or less) real time to ask questions or request clarification.

  8. To me, typing on a chat system is totally different from speech. You can be saying something at the same time someone else is talking, and not realize it. And I can’t type as fast or easily as I can speak. Every statement has to be planned out more, but I can’t plan too long or I’ll miss my chance. Writing is different yet again. Speaking is easy, writing is easy, but chatting through text is difficult. (Since I’ve become a fan of World of Warcraft, I’ve been faced with this a lot lately.)

  9. As a linguistics grad student who teaches international students English, I give you permission to box the ears of anyone who suggests any of the communicative skills are the same. That’s just idiocy. Second language learners would master all literacy, speaking and comprehension skills at the same rate, and I can tell you that just does not happen. Heck, first language speakers growing up would master everything at the same time, and everyone knows that’s not true. For instance, kids will often say something like FISH wrong, as FIS, but if their parent says FIS they will correct them and say “Not my FIS, your FIS.” They have the comprehension, but not the speaking. The same goes in writing. I cannot write in Spanish, and I can barely speak it, but I can read it fluently. I know others who can read and write in Spanish, but cannot speak it, and others who speak Japanese but cannot read or write.

    When you get stuck, just write nonsense until you come unstuck. That’s honestly the best way to handle writing issues. By nonsense I mean you can change and write a story that’s absolutely ridiculous, or try writing about another subject, like history, instead of what you wanted to write. You can always come back and edit it all out.

  10. Sorry it took me so long to post any comments here. I do enjoy your blog.

    To me this is simple logic, because I have been there. A wheelchair begins to use the same area as the walking bit of the brain according to some new science. I can link it if I google but I am a bit fried. I read about this a few months ago. It stunned scientists and this had a bunch of wheelchair users laughing at their shock. I only have to think about rolling when I would’ve had to work hardest at not collapsing into a heap of limbs.

    The same applies to any other assistive device, or so I have presumed because I use them too. The brain uses different areas for creation than conversation anyway. I do not THINK about typing, but if I am trying to converse, Ithink very hard about which keys I am pushing.

    I hope this made sense. Bit under the clouds of coherency.

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