What Are the Differences Between Speaking and Writing?

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This blog was originally posted on November 6, 2014.


I can still remember where I was when I opened my copy of College Composition and Communication (the May 1977 issue) and turned to Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” I had recently submitted my dissertation and was in that grad student’s limbo, waking every morning with the panicky thought that “I’ve GOT to finish my dissertation” only to realize that I had, indeed, done so, and preparing to move from the university that had been my home for five years to a new and scary “first Ph.D. job” in Vancouver, Canada. I was sitting on the floor in my tiny bedroom in Columbus, Ohio, where I had written a lot of the dissertation, and I’d taken a break from sorting through stacks of sources and files to read the new CCC.


I read Emig’s article straight through twice before putting it down. I knew her work, of course, and respected it (and her) enormously, but I knew when I read this essay that I was learning to think in a new way about writing. Indeed, at that time, Emig taught many of us to think about writing in a new way.


I am still grateful for all of Emig’s work, and particularly for this piece, so I recently went back to take another look at it. It is much as I remember: clear, straightforward, bold in its claims, scrupulous in its presentation of evidence in support of those claims. And while Emig is careful not to essentialize either writing OR speaking, she is very clear on the differences between them and on the importance of teachers of writing recognizing those differences. Here are the ones she outlined almost forty years ago:


      (1) Writing is learned behavior; talking is natural, even irrepressible, behavior.

      (2) Writing then is an artificial process; talking is not.

      (3) Writing is a technological device, not the wheel, but early enough to qualify as primary technology; talking is organic,             natural, earlier.

      (4) Most writing is slower than most talking.

      (5) Writing is stark, barren, even naked as a medium; talking is rich, luxuriant, inherently redundant.

      (6) Talk leans on the environment; writing must provide its own context.

      (7) With writing, the audience is usually absent; with talking, the listener is usually present.

      (8) Writing usually results in a visible graphic product; talking usually does not.

      (9) Perhaps because there is a product involved, writing tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking.

      (10) It can even be said that throughout history, an aura, an ambience, a mystique has usually encircled the written             word; the spoken word has for the most part proved ephemeral and treated mundanely.

      (11) Because writing is often our representation of the world made visible, embodying both process and product, writing             is more readily a form and source of learning than talking.

Janet Emig, “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” CCC 28.2 (1977): 122-28.


In the full article, Emig nuances many of these points, but what interests me today in re-reading her work is how changes in technology and especially the rise of “new” media practically beg for us to reconsider these distinctions. While I could talk about each one of the distinctions Emig raises, I’ll concentrate here on four of them: 5, 7, 8, and 9.248004_office-620817_1920.jpg


“Writing is stark, barren, even naked as a medium; talking is rich, luxuriant, inherently redundant” gives me special pause. Today, with so much multimodal writing that is full of sound, still and moving images, color (and more), the medium of writing seems far from stark or barren—and so more rich and luxuriant than it was in 1977. Talk still seems to me to have those qualities along with inherent redundancy. But writing today is also redundant: we have only to think of retweets to see just how much so.


“With writing, the audience is usually absent; with talking, the listener is usually present.” This is a distinction Walter Ong makes as well, but today I would say—yes and no. Audiences for writing are virtually present and often immediately so, while with talking an audience can be as present as the person next to you, or as distant as listeners to radio or a podcast. In fact, the whole concept of audience is in flux today, as we try to think not only of the “audience addressed” and “audience invoked” that Lisa Ede and I described decades ago, but of the vast unknown audiences that may receive our messages and the ways we can best conceptualize and understand them. Audiences today, it seems, are both present and absent.


“Writing usually results in a visible graphic product; talking usually does not” likewise raises a number of questions. Writing online certainly results in a visible product, but it is digital, not graphic; talking, on the other hand, is often made visible through transcripts or text that accompanies the talk.


“Perhaps because there is a product involved, writing tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking” strikes me as perhaps the most problematic of the points Emig makes. As noted above, talking now often results in “products” and would therefore seem to have the same opportunity to be “responsible and committed.” But writing—especially on social media sites and other online discourses but also in a lot of print journalism—now seems decidedly irresponsible. You may have heard the story earlier this year about a California teacher who caused an uproar for remarks she made about students on Twitter (“I already wanna stab some kids” for example), remarks she claims were not meant seriously at all. Is it because they are “visible” that she has been taken to task for them? Would it have made a difference if she had voiced the remarks in public? Are these remarks “written” or “spoken”?


Re-reading Emig’s seminal article raises these and other questions for teachers of writing today, questions that many are attempting to answer (see, e.g., Cindy Selfe’s wonderful essay on aurality and the need for attention to it—“The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing” in the CCC June 2009). As always, I want to engage students in discussing and debating these questions. So I’m planning to ask students I regularly correspond with to write to me about their current understandings of the differences, and similarities, between speaking and writing. I wish others would do the same, so we could compare notes.


Credit: Pixaby Image 620817 by FirmBee, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.