My co-writer and good friend Barbara is coming next week and we will have another little orgy of book writing. Only five days, but this will be enough for us to get a second section of our doctoral researcher writing book roughed out and in messy first draft.
Our method of writing is all about the talk. We talk as much as we write. We talk a lot about the topic we are working on. We talk first of all to clarify our ideas – I guess this serves the same purpose as free-writing, but it’s infinitely more enjoyable. We often make terrible jokes, ramble around, and tell each other tangential stories about our current writing/teaching/everyday lives. But during these conversations we generally come up with some key ideas. We talk our way into the angle that we want to take. And by the time we have talked for an hour or so, we will have worked out a metaphor or a heuristic of some kind that will help make the idea clear. This is a talk-as-ideas-clarification process.
Very often, while we are engaged in one of these talk-as-ideas-clarification conversations it becomes obvious that we need to start recording. So either one or both of us will reach for a pen and paper, or one of us will sit down at the keyboard and begin to make random notes. This initial writing then becomes the basic material on which we work.
Our next stage is another kind of talk. Much more focused. This is talking-as-writing, where we have a conversation to jointly compose the text. This is more like dictating, but it’s a bit more spontaneous, and there are often breaks in the actual talk-as-writing for more of the talk-as-ideas-clarification. Sometimes during this stage, we have to pause and reach for a reference book or paper to make sure that we have accurately communicated a concept or strategy.
Using both of these kinds of talk allows us to write about four thousand words a day, sometimes less, sometimes more if we are on a roll. The text that we produce is rough and often has to be ruthlessly pruned. It will always have little gaps in it where we know we have to go back and do a bit more thinking or researching. However, this talked text has a kind of energy that is hard to duplicate using any other method.
Peter Elbow, best known as the freewriting advocate, has written a big fat book about talking and writing – Vernacular eloquence. What speech can bring to writing. (You don’t need to buy it unless you’re really keen on books about writing. Get your library to get a copy.) I’ll probably post about this book a bit in the next little while because I think it’s pretty useful. Elbow doesn’t argue that talking substitutes for any kind of writing – talking isn’t writing – but he does suggest that there are things about talking that are pretty helpful to try to translate into, and move into, writing. Talking and writing is a political point for him too – see Elbow make this point himself.
In one part of the big fat book, Elbow states that “unplanned spoken language is good for pith, gists, and nutshells” (p 90). By this he means that talking can help us to, as the common sayings suggest, “Spit it out. Hit the nail on the head” (p 91). Acknowledging that it’s also possible to ramble around while talking, he nevertheless advocates talking as a deliberate and deliberative way of unpacking the muddle in your head – making complex ideas more accessible and separating out the detail from the major points. He calls this “talking writing” rather than “writing writing”.
Now this talking–as-ideas-clarification is what the Three Minute Thesis does. It’s also the point of the lift exercise – can you explain your thesis to another person in the time it takes you to go down five floors in a lift? And of course, the talk-think connection is what’s at the heart of the kind of dialogue that goes in in supervision, where the supervisor asks questions in order to get the doctoral researcher to clarify and state simply what they mean. It’s not about a right answer, but verbal prompting to help DRs sort out what they think. It’s also why we all generally need to rehearse before giving a conference presentation – talking about, rather than reading an edited version of our paper helps us pare things down to the most important points.
So Elbow’s “pith, gist and nutshells” talk is clearly what Barbara and I do. Our conversation, particularly the talk-as-ideas-clarification is precisely to get to the “nail on the head” moment. We talk until we find the point we are trying to make, expressed in language that is pretty straightforward and unambiguous. Then, when we turn to talk-as-writing, we try to maintain some of the rough energy from our initial conversation as well as its focus and clarity.
I’m interested to think about how doctoral researchers, who generally write in isolation, might use talk as means of thinking through analysis and chapters. Talking might be a good accompaniment, or alternative, to freewriting and mindmapping as a means of working out some bottom line points that they want to make. What do you think? How do you use talk to write?