Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business. Just don't call it a blog...



Speech to text

November 2013

"How do you write?" I'm often asked. OK, perhaps not often, but certainly occasionally. My daughter asked me once, anyway.

It's a deeper question than it might first appear. It's tempting to answer "I write the way I think," but that's not strictly true. The majority of human thought processes are not words but imagery, blocks of meaning derived from the visual cortex and coupled with experiences dredged from our procedural memories.

Procedural memories are those associated with learned behaviour like riding a bicycle (as opposed to declarative memories such as "I know Paris is the capital of France") and are generally thought to be stored in the cerebellum and related areas of the brain. They can't easily be scrawled onto the page.

Yet imagery does play a big part in writing. Anything I write is broken down into chunks: the article itself is a chunk (of my wider workload), each section within the article is a chunk, each paragraph within each section is a chunk, and so on down to individual words. I visualise these chunks and how they fit together, swapping them around like pieces of a 3D jigsaw puzzle until they form a coherent whole.

At my best, when writing something really enjoyable, I fling these pieces around like a professional juggler, barely glancing at them as I deftly weave a pattern of prose. At other times it's more like tiling a bathroom: time-consuming but the result is worth the effort.

The greater part of the writing process, for me at least, is this mental organisation, backed by research and the constraints of the project brief. By contrast, bashing out the words on a keyboard takes relatively little time.

And the individual words themselves come from... somewhere. I don't have direct access to that knowledge. Nobody does. If I asked you, "What are the exact words you're going to say next?" most people would be stumped. In fact I've met only one adult in my life who thought through every sentence he uttered before speaking it. An odd man indeed, and fiercely intelligent.

For the rest of us, the words just appear. When we're talking in conversation we know the shape of what we're about to say, but we leave it to unconscious processes to decide which words to use, in much the same way - for good reason - that we don't think consciously about how we ride a bicycle. Practice moves this skill to unconscious parts of the brain associated with the automated control of tasks: we do it without thinking consciously. Only in stressful, vital situations do we really choose our words.

This reliance on unconscious processes explains our verbal mistakes, Freudian slips and why we sometimes fall off our bicycles. We delegate the detail to imperfect cognitive modules to save mental energy. The modules are fast, much faster than our conscious minds would be when performing the same tasks, but they are prone to errors.

So, back to writing. If I don't write the way I think, then how do my thoughts reach the page? The answer is: I write the way I speak. Almost.

Try this. Use your voice to create prose. Picture who you're speaking to, form a mental image of them sitting opposite you, then write down what you would like to say to them.

Except that's not quite true either. You can't simply write in that way because you would have um, er, ahh, whatever, like... you know... gaps and stuff. Yeah. And shrugs, gestures and other body language, know what I mean? Right, right. Right.

 

And uncomfortable pauses.

 

But our voices sound clear, accurate and concise inside our own heads. It's only the journey from Broca's area (part of the brain strongly associated with language) to our vocal chords that seems to mess it all up. Psychology and physiology muddle our perfect mental prose.

Yet the wonderful thing about writing is that it can be edited. The spoken word is out there as soon as it's uttered, but you're free to edit your written content to your heart's... erm... content. [edit this later???different word???]

So I write as I would speak, or rather as I would like to speak: clearly, informatively and without too many unnecessary adjectives. And then I go back and edit what I've written. At least seven times.

I realise this isn't what most people consider to be the 'proper' way to write, which would be to write down the document structure first, then fill in the blank spaces in consecutive order from start to finish. But I've never met a professional writer who writes the 'proper' way, even if they might claim to do so until you get to know them, get them drunk and force them to admit the truth.

Writers all have their own idiosyncratic techniques, none of which appears logical or structured to anyone else. Writing, at least for the first major draft, is too bound up in the writer's psychology to submit to enforced structure.

If you're new to writing professionally then over time you'll no doubt develop your own particular method for extracting pertinent words from your mind and making them appear on the page or screen. But I humbly submit that the speech-to-text approach will get you up and running faster than most.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and hasn't edited this article seven times.

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