Paradise Found? Orality in the Composition Process

by Alex Quadros
Photo of Alex Quadros

Alex is an undecided major from Chelmsford, MA, who is interested in International Relations, English, and Economics. Alex said this topic “thoroughly piqued my curiosity” and he “wondered whether my recurrent frustrations with procrastination of writing assignments was a symptom of ‘thinker’s block,’ or rather the usual culprit of ‘writer’s block.’ This distinction became important to him as he realized “utilizing orality could spur the composition process.” Alex is a very family-oriented person and is passionate about helping others. His ideal day would be hiking with friends while listening to the Rolling Stones and then playing basketball all night long. He says that “whatever career I decide on, I hope it is one where the main goal is not making money but instead making others’ lives better; I recognize that an education is currently a privilege not available to all, so I want to make the most of it.”

Orality is the quality of being spoken or verbally communicated, as opposed to textuality, the quality or use of language characteristic of written works. Although the composition process merely refers to the creation of something new, student writers or professionals would naturally use ‘composition’ interchangeably with ‘writing,’ thereby insinuating textuality and ignoring orality. These two modes of language use do not need to be segregated though. English poet John Milton was blind when he ‘wrote’ his famous Paradise Lost. For that reason, he didn’t write the text at all, rather he spoke it into existence, dictating it to scribes. Similarly, Henry James developed rheumatism, or arthritis of the hands, in his fifties and as a result, his later works were products of dictation. James commented, “It all seems to be so much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech than in writing” (qtd. in Campbell 164). Scholars note that James’ change in media from longhand to dictation did correspond to a change in style, with his oral texts characterized by longer sentences, alliteration (signaling more awareness of sound) and more abstract ideas (Campbell 164). Milton and James demonstrate a traditional view of orality being solely a tool to assist writers with disabilities. In addition to physical disabilities such as those Milton and James had, orality is often invoked due to learning difficulties; educator Roanne Brice explains that “students with language learning disabilities (LLD) often find it difficult to express their thoughts in written format” (38). I think that the perception of orality being primarily appropriate for those with disabilities implicitly suggests that the written format is inherently more valuable or advanced as compared to orality, which is a last resort. Although the majority of research on orality in the composition process does focus on writers with disabilities, I see no logical reason for the role of orality to be reserved for a select few if it could benefit writers en masse. I therefore set out to discover if, and how, the composition process could profit from orality.

From the examples of Milton and James, I understand two critical ideas. Most fundamentally, it is evident that orality and textuality are in fact compatible, in the sense that words spoken can become text on a page, and that this is true even for very advanced compositions. Next, it is clear that this compatibility does not signal interchangeability; through James it is evident that his spoken language was distinct from his written language. Therefore, I propose a way of thinking about these two different modalities within the composition process as harnessing one’s “oral composition mind” and one’s “written composition mind.” I think these terms are useful because they illustrate that, while the writer or speaker might not recognize it, there is a unique mindset employed depending on the modality, which leads to distinct results within the composition process. The dichotomy between the oral composition mind and the written composition might appear dramatic, but modern neuroscience suggests that it is a useful distinction.

I think that the misconception most necessary to dispel in order for writers to take seriously the role of orality is the idea that the words we write are the words we would have otherwise spoken. Modern neuroscience helps refute this myth. Dr. Michael Gassaniga and Dr. Kathleen Baynes conducted a study on split brain patients, those who have had their brains surgically bifurcated to control seizures. Gazzaniga and Baynes found that after this procedure, a patient could engage in fluent spoken language with ease, but had absolutely no ability to write. While the majority of people have both language abilities (speaking and writing) grounded in the left hemisphere of the brain, this patient had speaking ability grounded in the left hemisphere but writing in the right (Blakeslee). Linguist Steven Pinker “suggests that reading and writing arose separately from spoken language and may be wired up in the brain wherever there are ‘spare areas’” (cited in Blakeslee). This separation of spoken and written language in the brain suggests that orality and written language should not be treated as two sides of the same coin. Rather, I think a conceptual framework using the terms “oral composition mind” and “written composition mind” will allow speakers/writers to view these two modalities as cognitively differentiated so that both will be validated for their own merits.

Oral and written language are first distinguished based on their respective characteristics and the best uses of each. Michael Halliday, a linguist, observed that “spoken language is characterized by complex sentence structures with low lexical density (more clauses, but fewer high content words per clause); written language by simple sentence structures with high lexical density (more high content words per clause, but fewer clauses)” (qtd. in Chafe and Tannen 388). This means that spoken language utilizes longer and more varied sentence structure with simpler words, while written language uses more digestible sentences but more advanced vocabulary. This makes intuitive sense, as people are not concerned with individual sentences or punctuation when speaking, but rather with the ideas themselves. Halliday’s observation about the length of spoken sentences is in fact supported by “those athletically long sentences” that Henry James dictated (Campbell 164). Van Woerkum builds from Halliday’s idea with his characterization of speech reflecting a creative mood while writing employs the “rational-analytic mood” (194). I would identify the creative mood with spontaneity and insight; the rational-analytic would be meticulous and detail-oriented. I find that even research writing requires creativity in the synthesis and production of ideas. But, during research writing I often struggle with writer’s block, and I think this results from my tendency to obsess over sentence structure and word choice (rational-analytic) when I should still be focusing on ideas. Van Woerkum proposes that writer’s block occurs from a conflation of these two moods, with the recommendation being not to “merge these creative and analytic parts of writing” and in fact to “separate them as far as possible” (Van Woerkum 194). Therefore, the oral composition mind identifies with the creative mood, whereas the written composition mind is comparatively more rational-analytic in nature, and the recommendation is to separate the utilization of these two minds in the composition process. I then recognize the value of invoking the creativity of the oral composition mind, through speech recognition technology or other means, in the drafting stages of composition. Lauren Fine investigated drafting with SR technology, by having three first year composition students compose aloud and then reflect on the process. For Shannon, the most skilled writer in the group,“composing aloud helped her explore her ideas more; rather than taking the first idea she came up with and running with it, as she normally does, she said she was able to dig deeper because when speaking ‘nothing was super permanent’” (Fine 6). For Shannon, (and again confluent with James’ more abstract ideas) the seeming impermanence of orality freed her from the rational analytic and her oral composition mind allowed for a greater depth of ideas.

Another avenue for orality is to promote the authority of a writer within their composition. Many researchers have noted that using the oral composition mind makes one more cognizant of one’s self as being an active participant in the discourse. In a study involving Australian college students, researchers Poole and Field found that spoken language resulted in more personal pronouns (cited in Chafe and Tannen 387) and on the other side, Van Woerkum notes that written compositions contain “more attributive and fewer personal pronouns” (185). Personal pronouns include ‘I, ‘you,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ etc. and attributive pronouns include ‘everybody,’ ‘everyone,’ etc. This means that the speaker recognizes themself as an active participant shaping the composition along with other distinct individuals, or authors. I think that students having difficulty with seeing themselves as authors constructing knowledge in academic writing could benefit from orality in this regard. For example, Janet, a college freshman who recorded her thoughts in a talk-aloud procedure as she composed an essay on paternalism, frequently joined the academic conversation by voicing her opinion. She said, “that the Gert Culver definition number two…that paternalism is qualified…is a bunch of baloney…I don’t think that a child could do anything for a parent without the parent’s consent…I think that critique is not good” (Penrose and Geisler 512). Despite Janet’s strong vocalized feelings, “these responses did not become central to her work and do not appear in her paper. Not even when her examples clearly ‘disproved’ another author’s position did she step into the conversation to say so” (Penrose and Geisler 514). I think that validating Janet’s spoken practices through oral drafting with SR technology or other means could have allowed her to play a more active role in the composition of her report. The personal pronouns and authority resulting from the oral composition mind may in fact be correlated with the impermanence with which Shannon, from Fine’s study, viewed her orality. Janet might have voiced her opinions as a result of the impermanence of orality, whereas it is clear she did not include her opinions in her report because she viewed the written format of her intertext as something permanent, “the book” as she put it (Penrose and Geisler 513). Therefore, validating the authority of the oral composition mind could provide developing writers with a way to include themselves in academic discourse.

It is also relevant to note the role that orality could serve in helping writers compose to meet audience needs. Van Woerkum points out that texts which “adopt elements of the orality of the group of readers are more attractive and therefore…[are] better understood” (189). Further, psychologist J.C. Turner found that “texts that are clearly related to the oral communication of readers are labeled as stemming from a we-group rather than a they group” (qtd. in Van Woerkum 189). This means that not only are texts easier to comprehend if they align with the spoken language the audience is used to, but also that the audience is able to identify with the author, forming a solid foundation for meaningful reading. This has implications for all writers, but particularly those who, consciously or inadvertently, use an overly formal or convoluted style. Lindsey, a freshman composition student from Fine’s study, used speech recognition to draft, but then edited heavily, resulting in convoluted phrases such as “‘provided me with some of the hardest laughing’” and “‘resulting in further dislike and annoyance” (Fine 4). Students often mistake formality for intelligence or clarity when formality can in fact obscure meaning. I certainly wouldn’t identify Lindsey within a we-group based on those phrasings. In contrast to Lindsey, Catherine remarked that composing aloud with speech recognition software “helped her write more naturally because she had to consider what her writing actually ‘sounds like to a person’” (Fine 6). Therefore, even in the absence of composing aloud, as a result of Turner and Fine’s work, I see value in writers reading their texts aloud, to measure their written work against the orality of readers. Peter Elbow, a pioneer of freewriting, makes this same recommendation. Writing about his article in “Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing,” Hoerman and Enos say that for the later stages of writing, “especially revising…the practice of reading one’s writing aloud is an aid in revising and proofreading because speaking slowly slows the writer down, letting her or him hear errors more readily than one might see them, while also giving papers a more acoustic quality” (168). By “acoustic,” Hoerman and Enos mean the naturalness that Fine’s student, Catherine describes, which in turn corresponds to the “elements of the orality of the group of readers” that produces the we-group identification that Turner discusses. It is clear that harnessing the oral composition mind is a cornerstone of writer-audience interaction.

Many researchers have concluded that conversation could play a key role in textual production. In fact, linguist J.C. Schafer concluded that “for teachers of composition, the distinction between dialogue and monologue is more useful than the distinction between speaking and writing” (qtd. in Chafe and Tannen 388). This means that independent versus assisted text production yields a greater gap in quality than oral v written production. Since negotiating meaning in dialogue is the most common use of language, it should be no surprise that monologue, even for skilled writers, can be unnatural. Van Woerkum adds that a writer “cannot see his receiver and is deprived of the use of (often non-verbal) signals that tell him how his message is being interpreted” (186). For example, if any sentence in this paper is confusing, I would be unaware as a writer, but would likely receive visual feedback if I were expressing the same ideas in conversation with another person. Recognizing this phenomenon, Melody Denny proposes an oral-revision space, where a writer can revise a text orally with the help of a peer or instructor. The oral-revision space is not merely talking about writing, but uses conversation analysis to write what is spoken. A student, in conversation with a peer, said, “‘I don’t know if that was necessary or not. ‘Depending on the product being advertised, the ad that goes with it?’ That doesn’t make sense. So never mind” (Denny 38). The underlined section represents a student speaking, trying out a different formulation. The delineation of the oral composition mind being creative and the written composition mind being comparatively analytical prompts me to propose that an oral-drafting space would work as well as Denny’s oral-revision space. It appears that the creativity and abstract ideas associated with orality, in tandem with the benefits of conversation, could promote successful preliminary drafting. Then, the written modality is best suited for the early stages of revision, harnessing the rational-analytic side of the written composition mind. Finally, in the later stages of revision, Denny’s oral drafting space, with the support of Elbow’s idea of revising for acoustics, could best utilize the merits of one’s oral composition mind.

Speech recognition software, or SR software, such as Dragon, allows for the most immediate meshing of orality and textuality. Studies on the effectiveness of SR software are varied in their findings. Lauren Fine found that drafting with SR software helped one student generate more complex ideas, and one student write more naturally, but the aforementioned Lindsey produced a draft that was “plagued by convoluted phrasings” (4). But, Fine later found out that Lindsey “edited heavily and kept very little of what she originally spoke” (5). This need for extensive editing was also reported by Williams, Hartley, and Pittard in a study of 12 writers of varying skill levels. Every writer in the study disagreed with the claim that SR makes editing easier (Willaims et. al. 275). Williams et. al. also concluded that “planners are more positive about SR than discoverers” ( 277). This means that those who already know what they want to say have a better experience with SR than those who are using it to generate ideas. This conflicts with Van Woerkum’s emphasis on orality being used for the creative process, and suggests that writing is in fact a technology useful for planning. However, Van Woerkum then distinguishes between the drafting phase and the preparation phase, suggesting that preparation requires both creative and rational-analytic abilities. After this preparation phase, drafting is creative and revising is rational analytic (Van Woerkum 196-7). I take the recommendation to then be that planning could involve written practices like diagramming and oral practices such as speak-aloud or conversation. Only then should orality be used to draft. Next, the written composition mind is utilized for the structural phase of revision, and the oral composition mind can be invoked again in later revisions, through conversation and reading aloud.

I now see that accessing one’s oral composition mind could have many benefits within the composition process, not just for writers with disabilities, but for all writers. As a result, I think it is important for writers to be aware of the role orality plays in the composition process, because if writers are ignoring orality, they are ignoring a valuable tool at their disposal. I think pedagogical considerations should shift to educate writers on the relationship between writing and orality, and how to use each modality most efficiently in the composition process. Before my research, I rarely, if ever, thought about orality relating to composition. I had never used SR technology or a talk-aloud procedure, and seldom ever read my papers aloud. I look forward to experimenting with the oral composition mind and I recommend further research on SR technology with larger sample sizes and different levels of writing experience.

Works Cited

Blakeslee, Sandra. “Workings of Split Brain Challenge Notions of How Language Evolved.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Nov. 1996, p. 43.

Brice, Roanne G. “Connecting Oral and Written Language through Applied Writing Strategies.” Intervention in School and Clinic, vol. 40, no. 1, 2004, pp. 38-47.

Campbell, Sarah. “The Man Who Talked Like A Book, Wrote Like He Spoke.” Interval(le)s, Fall 2008/Winter 2009, pp.164–173.

Chafe, Wallace, and Deborah Tannen. “The Relation between Written and Spoken Language.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 16, 1987, pp. 383–407.

Denny, Melody. “The Oral Writing-Revision Space: Identifying a New and Common Discourse Feature of Writing Center Consultations.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, 2018, pp. 35–66.

Fine, Lauren, “The Power of Speech: Speech-Recognition Software in the Writing Process.” BYU Scholars Archive, 2015, pp. 1-13.

Hoermann, Jacquelyn E., and Richard Leo Enos. “Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing.” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 163–170.

Penrose, Anne M. and Cheryl Geisler. “Reading and Writing Without Authority.” College Composition and Communication Vol. 45, no 4, Dec. 1994, pp. 505-520.

Williams, Noel, et al. “Talking to Write: Investigating the Practical Impact and Theoretical Implications of Speech Recognition (SR) Software on Real Writing Tasks.” Writing and Cognition: Research and Applications, edited by Mark Torrance et al., Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2010.

Van Woerkum, C M J. “Orality and the Process of Writing.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, vol. 37, no. 2, 2007, pp. 183-201.