Few speak English well.
Far fewer write well.
That’s what I’ve seen time and again among people from multiple walks of life.
(Note that speaking here refers to regular conversations we hold and not to public speaking. And writing doesn’t mean SMS or quick 2-3 line emails. It means writing paragraphs, essays, reports, proposals, and the like.)
I’ve spoken to and reviewed application essays for international MBA programs from people working in reputable organizations, including multinational companies. I found most to be fluent speakers, but, by and large, only few could write well. And here I’m not talking of people working in any random organization. I’m talking of top-notch organizations, where we expect employees to have impeccable speaking as well as writing skills.
I’ve also reviewed writings of people from academia, government, students, and few other backgrounds, and I’ve found the same pattern repeating – huge gap between spoken and written English.
(Note that here we’re talking of gap between the two skills. Spoken and written skills for people working in less market-driven organizations, less customer-centric roles, are even worse, which still makes for a huge gap between the two skills.)
However, most aren’t even aware where their written English stands. When you ask people to compare their spoken and written English, only few say their written English lags significantly.
Why is writing more difficult than speaking for most people?
(Note that I’m not saying writing is more difficult to acquire than speaking. I’m only saying that most people are better at speaking than at writing because of few reasons. Most people, in fact, will find speaking tougher to master because of affective filter – hesitation, fear of making mistakes, etc. – and producing an output in real time. Some theorists such as Bailey and Savage suggest that speaking is the most demanding of the four language skills.)
I’ve observed two clear reasons, and both are so commonsensical.
1. Fewer naturally-occurring opportunities to write than to speak
How many opportunities to speak in English come your way naturally in a day? It’ll depend on your circumstances, but at least few.
What about writing?
Few emails. Plenty of SMSs. Comments on social media. That’s it, for vast majority.
But do they count as writing?
‘Thru’ instead of ‘through’. ‘Ur’ instead of ‘your’.
‘Let’s meet at 4 PM in the conference hall.’
‘What’s the status of the project?’
Few short sentences, at best. Sometimes, not even complete sentences.
You may be writing 500 words every day – which, BTW, is significant – but such fast and junk writing isn’t writing. We get better at what we do regularly and here you get better at writing junk… not regular writing. You’ll struggle to put together few simple sentences to form a coherent paragraph if you’ve only texted and emailed. Many, BTW, aren’t aware that their writing is not up to the mark. They probably believe all the texting they do to be writing.
A good parallel to speak vs. write opportunity will be walk vs. run opportunity in our daily lives.
Without making conscious effort, you’ll get at least few opportunities to walk every day, something similar to opportunity to speak. But without making conscious effort, you’ll rarely run, something similar to opportunity to write. This rings the words of Steven Pinker, the popular science author:
The real problem is that writing, unlike speaking, is an unnatural act.
To sum this part, in the natural course of your work, you get few opportunities to speak, but hardly any to write. As a result, we speak more than we write, and at the fundamental level it’s number of hours we spend doing an activity that determines how good, or bad, we’re in that activity.
It may sound baffling to you, but precisely for this reason even Americans (who can obviously speak well) struggle in writing in English. In U.S., you’ll find many more businesses offering products and services to improve writing and reading than speaking because the market for the former (natives as well as immigrants) is much bigger than for the latter (mainly immigrants).
However, on average, Americans are much better in writing than people from countries such as India (where writing isn’t practiced enough) because their education system, especially undergrad and grad programs, requires lots of reading and writing. Courses there typically have multiple minor writing projects and few major research papers running into several thousand words.
You become what you practice.
2. Writing is more rule-based and therefore is harder
Unless you’re participating in a debate where you’re expected to follow a structure, not fumble, and not make mistakes, you can speak your own sweet way on most occasions. In most conversations, you don’t think too hard on how you’ll structure your conversation. You just start speaking spontaneously, interject occasionally, and respond to others’ points.
That’s why transcripts of conversations are full of embarrassing mistakes. Tim Ferriss, in his book Tools of Titans, underscores this point when he says how awful transcripts (written version of his podcast episodes) of his conversations with guests on his podcast look:
Transcripts can be unforgiving. I’ve read my own, so I know how bad it can be.
In the heat of the moment, grammar can go out of the window, to be replaced by false starts and sentence fragments. Everyone starts an ungodly number of sentences with “And” or “So”. I and millions of others tend to use “and I was like” instead of “and I said.” Many of us mix up plural and singular. This all works fine in conversation, but it can hiccup on the printed page.
While speech is transient, writing is permanent. People can subject your writing to forensic scrutiny. Punctuation. Grammar. Flow. Slangs and abbreviations (or rather absence of them). And so on.
You’ve got rid of the conversational ‘gotta’ and introduced a comma. Punctuations get noticed when reading, but only fleetingly (through pauses) when listening. If you leave a single space before a punctuation mark (like with this comma) , it’ll be noticed.
Can you guess which one is more likely to be part of conversation and which, part of writing?
The latter is part of writing.
Do you see the difference?
In the conversation, the additional information of Greenpeace being a non-governmental organization has been added casually toward the end. Whereas in written form, it has been added as an appositive (the fragment between the two commas in the first sentence).
Second, conversations rarely use words or phrases showing relationship between clauses, sentences, or paragraphs outside of the regular ones such as and, but, and because. Phrases such as however and nonetheless are rarely used in conversations even though they may be more appropriate in a particular situation. (What about you? Do you use such phrases in speech?)
Third, in the written form, Greenpeace’s goal has been quoted as it is and therefore has been put in quotes. This isn’t a requirement – you can write in own words as well – but you can’t do it if you don’t know the punctuation rule for quotations.
Yet another example:
In sentences where subject is not in close proximity to corresponding verb, errors can creep in. For such complex subject-verb agreement cases, you may get away with an error in the spoken part, but not in written (in simple cases, you’ll be easily caught even while speaking).
Few more points of difference that make writing tougher:
- One needs to organize and reorganize sentences and paragraphs to bring structure to your writing, which can be much free-flowing and loose in spoken English. I’ve seen plenty of people who’re fine in sentence-level skills (writing individual sentences), but bad in flow.
- Writing requires higher degree of clarity and precision because you don’t have the luxury of visual cues, pauses, and intonation.
- People often repeat things while speaking, which need to be edited out in the written form.
- Subordinate clauses and other means to add variety in sentences occur more frequently in written form than in spoken. (Too many short and disjointed sentences can work in conversations, but not in writing.)
Because of plethora of rules and nuances required in writing, writing is harder than speaking. Unsurprisingly, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut said this about his writing process:
When I write, I feel like an armless, legless, man with a crayon in his mouth.