Monday, May 6, 2013

Three senses of "conversational" writing

[Builds on What is classic prose?: "Clear and Simple as the Truth” reinterpreted through construal-level theory]

Writing advice confuses when it extols ambiguous virtues such as being “conversational,” a term that might identify a manner of writing by any of three characteristics: stylistic similarity to conversation, stylistic suitability for conversation, and conversational aim. Whether a writer ought to strive for conversationality depends on the term’s intended sense and the writer’s purpose.

1. Similarity to ideal conversation: Ideal conversation is not ideal writing.

Conversation fundamentally differs from writing in its reliance on nonverbal cues. Ideal conversation is more fluent than ideal writing because of conversation’s reliance on the nonverbal: where less needs be explicit, its cognitive load should be smaller. Ideal classic or practical writing will lack the fluency of ideal conversation.

2. Suitability as conversation: Ideal written sentences might be ideal conversation.

Sentences utterly unsuitable for conversation because they can’t be parsed in one hearing do not conform to any established contemporary style. Although most writers should avoid sentences that require rereading due to their structural and semantic complexity, even this advice is conditional. Past styles have been influential where the sentences demand rereading, for example, Samuel Johnson’s (Preface to Shakespeare):

That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honors due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox: or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time. (From Thomas and Turner, "Clear and Simple as the Truth" at p. 15.)

3. Conversational aim: Only some writings should have conversational aims.

Writing styles taking a far-mode stance—styles which are “deeply” formal—can nonetheless seem conversational if they deal with opinion rather than belief by working through the intellectual issues and then presenting the results from a detached perspective. This form of conversationality is correctly prized, but it isn’t universally applicable. The practical style, ideal for a brief’s argument section, generally won’t sound conversational, even in this sense, because the legal-practical style typically requires describing the main results found in judicial opinions, not working through intellectual issues.