Notes from "Vernacular Eloquence"
How can speech improve your writing? Your initial reaction is probably, not at all. But it turns out there’s a lot that speech can offer writing, and that’s what Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence (Amazon Affiliate link that I get a small kickback from) is all about. It’s full of practical advice for harnessing the power of speech to improve your writing, so I wrote them down here for future reference.
The writing process
To oversimplify, the writing process can be split into 2 phases: first, getting words down on the page; then, editing those words into a finished piece that’s consumable by other people. Vernacular Eloquence contains techniques for both phases of the writing process.
Capturing raw thoughts
Overcome the fear of the blank page with freewriting. The method is simple: just write continuously for a set amount of time, usually 10 minutes, without stopping. If you don’t have anything to say, just write that. “I have nothing to say I have nothing to say I have nothing to say.” Or “I hate this I hate this I hate this.” Anything. Just don’t stop.
Don’t worry about form, grammar, sentence structure, spelling, or even if it’s any good at all. Freewriting is just for you. No one else needs to read it. Self-editing as you go and worrying about perfect grammar and spelling is the best way to go nowhere fast. You’ll return to spelling and grammar later in the editing phase.
A few tips:
- “Without stopping” doesn’t mean rushed. You can take a minute to breathe deeply, un-tense your muscles, or let a thought develop.
- It’s private. Not to be showed or read by anyone else. You’re speaking, but with the added safety of not having any listeners. This psychological safety will help you be messy and unrefined and just get thoughts down.
- You can freewrite about a topic, or you can just write whatever comes to mind. During quarantine I started the habit of doing morning pages (hat tip to the Artist’s Way) every day, which is just writing 3 straight pages of whatever thoughts come to mind.
The structure usually isn’t usable as is. It will likely jump around too much and be meandering. But there are usually sentences or multiple paragraphs that are perfectly readable. The next section on the editing process will give you tools to make sense of this mess.
A specific form of freewriting is invisible writing. It’s writing without seeing what you’re writing, like the name implies. Most writing is actually reading and writing, since you’re reading back what you wrote and editing it at the same time. This slows down your writing, and gets in the way of developing your ideas. It’s like if you set out to carve the statue of David and obsessed over getting the pinky perfect before realizing you bought the wrong type of marble. Oh, and the slab is too small.
Since invisible writing prevents you from reading as you go, you can only add more words and focus on developing your line of thinking. You can do this by making the text color the same as the background color, turn your monitor’s brightness down, or use an editor I built called Invisible Ink that blurs out your text and doesn’t let you edit.
This is a more opinionated form of freewriting. In the 70s, Sheridan Blau studied people writing invisibly (using empty ballpoint pens and carbon paper) and observed it “enhanced their fluency and spurred their creativity. The invisibility of the text seemed to force them to give more concentrated and sustained attention to their emerging thoughts than they usually gave when writing.” (p. 162). In other words, it improved their thinking. As Elbow puts it: “What it helps is productive thinking — the ability to come up with lots of ideas and to explore them in creative and fruitful ways.” (p. 163). I have found myself exploring more ideas from writing invisibly.
Why freewriting and invisible writing work
- Since they’re private and disposable, they help you overcome the biggest impediment to writing — getting started — by giving you psychological safety to write messy, unreadable, worthless prose.
- Since they force you to just keep producing words, “it pushes most of us into our mental speaking gear where we can’t plan or rehearse words before uttering them.” (p. 149). Your thoughts naturally connect to each other, as they would if you were speaking to another person. You don’t have gaps in logic, which you often see in poor writing. This helps the reader follow your train of thought. Reading is actually more similar to listening than we give it credit for, hence writing that follows the cues of speaking is easier to read.
- By shifting into that mental speaking gear, you’ll write with livelier and more natural language.
- It quiets the internal editor who’s telling us everything we create is awful, worthless drivel.
- It gives your unconscious mind space to take over. Your conscious mind is busy focusing on the words you’re putting on paper, and in the process your unconscious mind can get to work and serve you up new and sometimes surprising thoughts. You’re tapping into the same phenomenon that leads you to getting your best ideas in the shower.
Using these techniques, I’ve been surprised at the number of times I’ll start down one line of thinking, then switch tracks, then double back on that and end up somewhere totally unexpected. It often feels like arguing with myself, which helps me develop stronger ideas.
The editing process
Now that you’ve gotten your raw thoughts down, how do you make sense of that messy, incoherent, meandering blob of text? Elbow describes two methods, which are poles on a spectrum: collage and essay.
In this technique, you grab the best phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc., and string them together, separated by lines or asterisks (or not, up to you). This method lets us avoid:
- Revising weak passages. Just throw them out instead.
- Figuring out the main point. It can function as a series of vignettes, moods, impressions, and so on.
- Figuring out the best logical order. Just use an order that feels right or intriguing.
- Making good transitions. Just stop when you’re done with a section, and start the next one.
- Look through the rough writing, and choose the bits you like the most (phrases, sentences, whole pages, etc.)
- Lay them out in front of you (physically, or in a tool like Notion [my preferred tool of choice, especially since you can just drag and drop whole paragraphs and sections around. You can also put bits of text side-by-side.]), then read through them — slowly, respectively, meditatively.
- Arrange them in an order that feels pleasing or compelling or logically makes sense or just intuitively feels right. It doesn’t really matter; listen to what the piece wants to be.
- At this, you may see some missing bits: missing thoughts or ideas or stories to add. Maybe you see your core idea now and can state it with clarity and can write a reflection on it. Maybe you remember a badly written bit that you see now is needed. Or maybe you see a good way to write an opening or closing bit. Remember, however, that good collages can get along without openings and closings: you simply need a bit that works as a way to “jump into” your piece and another to “close the door” at the end.
- Revise it. But do so with a “negative” approach. See how much you can do by just leaving out words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Omission usually adds energy; addition saps it. Some rephrasing is fine, but see how far you can get without heavy re-writing. Reading your words aloud is best for this process (more on that below).
- Instead of trying to make nice connections or transitions, just use asterisks or dingbats.
- Do a final copy edit if you want to finish it (for style, clarity, and grammar).
You can start with a collage, and revise it in the direction of an essay.
An essay has more of a narrative than a collage. The process is to find the “stray bones” laying around, and gradually build them into a strong, coherent “skeleton” that’s alive.
- Find promising passages. Read slowly and grab the good bits — phrases, passages, whole pages. Some will be important because they contain stories or examples, not just a thought or idea or point.
- Create bones. For each important passage, create a tiny summary germ sentence. Make it as brief and pithy as you can. Summarize it with verbs as the point you’re trying to make, rather than a description of what it is. For example, not just “The ad for Coca-Cola,” but instead “The Coke ad implies that Coke will improve your health.”
- Why do you want to summarize with verbs over single words or phrases? Because this strongarms you into thinking. You’re creating ingredients that will later help you see the logic of your thinking. A little sentence says something and has conceptual semantic energy that helps you get from one idea to the next.
- Germ sentences might well be questions.
- If a passage of rough fast writing feels important in some way for the topic you are writing about, force it to yield a germ sentence.
- Germ sentences will help you later when you are trying to figure out a sequence or organization.
- Figure out a main idea. Look through the list of germ sentences and mark the ones that feel important or central. Look at the marked ones and figure out your main idea.
- Maybe there’s a felt but absent main idea here. An idea trying to hold all this interesting material together. Figure it out. Write it out. Do more freewriting around this implied idea. Or talk it through with someone.
- Build the skeleton. In other words, a sequence. Begin to work out a good sequence for your bones.
- Start with the main idea and the germ sentences you marked as most important. This forms a story outline – it tells a story of thinking that feels coherent and sensible. It’s an outline of thoughts, not just single words or phrases that point to mere topics or areas. Try to build a good sequence of sentences where each point follows the previous one naturally, where the sequence is going somewhere and has felt shape.
- There are lots of ways to tell a story. They can start at the end and you tell how you got there, or at the beginning, or middle with some random interesting anecdote.
- You may find there are gaps now. If so, fill them in. Return to freewriting to capture more raw thoughts that you can revise into coherent points.
- Revise this into a readable draft.
- Do final revisions by reading aloud (more on that below).
Revising by reading aloud
Once we have a draft down, we can start making the final revisions that has correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. The editing process is the hardest and longest part of writing (assuming you can get over the fear of the blank page in the first place). The process is slow, and you’re often bogged down by word choice, sentence structure, grammar, and all the fiddly bits of writing that we learn in school.
While much of this process is mechanical and following rules, speech can still help us write final, grammatically correct sentences.
This technique is pretty much what it sounds like: read your writing aloud. But as you do so, pay attention to how it feels in the mouth, and how it sounds to your ear. Where do you stumble? When does the kinesthetic feeling of physically moving your mouth and tongue feel off? When is it grating in the ear?
Consciously thinking about what is wrong with a sentence is much tougher to spot and fix problems then just saying it aloud and feeling how it sounds. This doesn’t usually point to a solution, but it will point to problems.
This method helps solve:
- Bureaucratic prose that sounds stilted and dry
- Roundabout or long-winded language
- Repetition and clang (conversely, it will help you hear when repetition is good)
- Interruptions that break the flow of a thought or sentence
Punctuation and emphasis
You can think of reading aloud as helping people hear your writing like you’re speaking it. When you speak, you put emphasis on certain words, pause in certain places, and modulate your volume and rhythm. Try to punctuate and format the text to achieve this. Where is there a longer pause, and where should the words just flow? Where do you want to signal a shift in tone?
For example, consider the phrase, “I didn’t steal the book.” Think of all the different ways you could say it:
- “I didn’t steal the book.”
- “I didn’t steal the book.”
- “I didn’t steal the book.”
Each of these has a very different meaning. Which will the reader hear when they read it? Punctuation and formatting can ensure they read it the way you intend, and revising by reading aloud will help you identify how they should read it.
In Elbow’s words, “It’s the marriage of sound and meaning that we seek with reading aloud — and that punctuation is meant to convey. We are looking for the out loud performance that best matches the meaning — that is or enacts the meaning.” (p. 279)
The author provides a few additional pieces of specific grammatical advice:
- About commas: When in doubt, leave it out. Careful reading aloud will help us avoid most of the extra commas that come from the pauses in casual speech, but some will creep in.
- Stick to periods, commas, and question marks. These minimize chances for grammar infractions, yet they’re all we need for excellent writing. The most realistic goal for punctuation is the same one for spelling: not to be noticed.
- Never use which. Most that/which tickets are issued for illegal whichs. The workaday that is fine for most of what we normally write.
- And then there are dashes. When you’re perplexed about what to use, use a dash. A dash is never wrong from a strictly legal point of view if you use it in any spot where you pause in careful reading aloud.
Does it lead to perfect grammar every time? No. But grammar is full of ambiguity, and good writers break the rules regularly. It will lead to proper grammar enough of the time to not make your writing more confusing.
Some other advice
Elbow sprinkles some other pearls of wisdom throughout the book, so here they are in a grab bag “collage” format 😄
- On starting: “If we don’t have an actual story to drive our essay, the most obvious way to create a "story of thinking” is to start with an itch: not a claim or a policy but a question of problem or perplexity. “ p. 309 (emphasis added). You may remember this from the opening to this post…
- "Good orators often consciously startle an audience with something that seems wrong or even is wrong.”
- “One of the best ways to help readers understand a complex idea is to start with an oversimplification. A simple claim is easily stated and easily grasped; complications and qualifications can be added later. This strategy can function not just in sentences but in paragraphs or even whole essays.” (p. 312). When we build in all the qualifications our sentences are too complicated, and boring, and have no energy or pull.
I highly recommend Elbow’s book if you want to become a better writer. It’s one of the few (only?) books I’ve read that improve your writing by showing you how to develop better ideas and arguments, instead of teaching you rules of grammar and style. The techniques above are the most concrete takeaways from the book, but it’s full of longer explanations about why speech leads to better writing, with studies and practical teaching experience to back up his arguments.
The book can be academic and long-winded at times, which I simultaneously enjoyed and felt bogged down by. He would often make an argument and then write out all of the counter arguments and then counter-counter argue those, to which I would sigh, “I was convinced 5 pages ago. You don’t need to convince me anymore!” But it was also fun to see his logic unfold. He’s good at calling out sections that are skippable and largely academic, so they’re easy to skip over if you don’t want to go down long academic rabbit holes. He also includes historical explanations of how the current system of “correct” writing is just as arbitrary as any other form of “incorrect” writing (tl;dr the people in power make the rules).
Buy it now if you want to improve your writing (this is an Amazon Affiliate link that I get a small kickback from).