Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing by Peter Elbow

Vernacular Eloquence coverSpeech and writing are both forms of language, but how are they different? How similar? And what can speech—off-the-cuff, spontaneous, flowing (if not cascading), and temporal—bring to writing, with its measure and rule? Mere chaos and incoherence? Not at all, answers Peter Elbow in his wide-ranging book. Speech can enhance writing if used strategically.

I was originally drawn to this book as a guide to better writing, but the book is more than that, it’s as much a reflection on language—spoken and written—as it is a guide to better writing. Indeed, the book careens from academic issues of linguistics and language and brief histories of language to specific pointers about improving your prose. While the digressions are often enlightening and entertaining, they bog the book down if you’re reading for the pearls of wisdom about writing.

Elbow’s two primary points are simple and straightforward. First, our everyday spoken language can prove quite useful in getting something down on paper that can start the journey toward a final draft. He’s a long-time proponent of freewriting, the “write first, think later” school of writing. This, of course, contradicts the “do your outline, and then a draft” standard of composition. But I think that he’s on to something. I often compose in my head well before any outline or draft. I also like his idea that sentences rather than one-word headings should be preferred for an outline. I agree that getting thoughts down on paper is the first thing you have to do to write. Of course, this means a lot of weeding later, but that’s what you have to do with your prose as well as your garden. This leads us to Elbow’s second major tip.

When revising and preparing a final draft, you should read your work aloud. Its best to read it to an audience, but even if you’re going solo, don’t just read it, perform it. Grammar and punctuation, as he points out in his background information, really seeks to replicate the intonation of the human voice in an attempt to enhance meaning and comprehension in the text. The trade-offs between written and spoken language mean that each has to mimic the other’s strengths. Writing freezes time. We can come back to a text and mull over it, hold it up for inspection as it were. On the other hand, the music of the human voice (more prosaically described as intonation) provides a richness of meaning that written language can only hope to echo. By reading aloud, Elbow argues that we will sense the flow of our prose and how easily (or not) a reader will experience it.

I think that Elbow is on to something here. I’ve haphazardly read my work aloud for some time now, but often hurriedly, more intent on copy-editing (which I do very poorly anyway) than on improving flow. Now, however, I’m resolved to read my draft aloud, if only to myself. (There’s only so much I can impose upon my long-suffering spouse.)

Elbow’s explorations into the differences between the written and spoken language, the changes in languages over time, the issues of Standard English and all that the standards of English language propriety imply are all quite interesting topics, but if you’re not as interested in these issues, it becomes distracting. However, I have a suggestion that you can pursue in lieu of Elbow’s full course meal. A short-order menu, if you will.

Several Short Sentences About Writing coverOver at Listening Like a Lawyer blog (any irony intended there?), author Jennifer Murphy Romig shares some similar thoughts in her post “Lawyers: listen to your writing” from author Vernon Klinkenborg and his recent book, A Few Short Sentences About Writing. In a few short sentences, Klinkenborg recommends that writers read their work aloud for reasons very similar to those suggested by Elbow. Think of it as an executive summary of the Elbow book.

(BTW, the Listening Like a Lawyer blog as whole, a fairly new one, has some very useful posts and I recommend it as a part of your regular feed. It’s on my RSS list.)

So if we all seem a bit daft sitting at our desks (or better yet, standing at them) reading aloud to our selves, so be it. It’s for the good of the reader—and us.

2 thoughts on “Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing by Peter Elbow

  1. Dear Steve,

    Thanks for this great post on Peter Elbow–and the mention of Listen Like a Lawyer. I really appreciate it.

    Vernacular Eloquence looks really interesting and I will definitely check it out. Elbow’s work on embracing contraries (which I first encountered in his book Everyone Can Write) has been very important to me. He explores various either/or dichotomies (generating ideas/criticizing ideas) and argues for, well, embracing both sides of the dichotomy and accepting their messy non-resolution. An example in the legal context would be that lawyers are obligated to the profession and also to their individual client.

    Thanks again for this book review and the blog mention. I look forward to learning more from your blog.

    Jennifer Romig

  2. Loved the article, Steve.
    As a speech coach for professionals, my frequent mantra is mind, paper, mouth!
    I agree that Listen Like a Lawyer is an important addition to the communication and legal field.
    Laurie Schloff
    Laurie Schloff
    Senior Coaching Partner

    World Headquarters:
    The Speech Improvement Company, Inc.
    1614 Beacon St.
    Boston (Brookline), MA 02446
    (617) 739-3330
    Fax (617) 232-9430

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