How Reading a Writer Is Better Than Listening to a Talker

51fhialw7ylFrank Deford’s book, I’d Know That Voice Anywhere, is a collection of his commentaries on National Public Radio. In the foreward to the book, he writes about the experience of listening versus reading:

…I am intrigued at this proposition that what I have spoken/voiced for the ear is here seeking to catch the approval of the eye. It’s unusual, maybe even risky, to attempt such a particular trans-communication.

…Nowadays, there’s probably more crossover headed in the other direction, written words being given a second exposure by a vocal professional—books on tape. Myself, once I left my mother’s lap, I’ve never heard a book read to me that I found as enjoyable as when I read it myself.

…the great advantage anyone reading something always has over being a mere captive listener is that the reader can conveniently pause and reread what she is tackling, making sure she understands clearly what is being foisted on her by the writer. I know that on NPR I can sneak by with a clever fillip, a nice turn of phrase…whereas if I was writing the same material out I would be much more careful in illuminating my point in detail…

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As a 40-year editor at a city magazine, I crossed paths with thousands of would-be writers who wanted to talk about the stories they wanted to write. At first I tended to think that people who could talk in an interesting and charming way also could write in an interesting and charming way.

That assumption was a trap that resulted in many headaches and kill fees. Finally, I learned to listen and then say, “That sounds really interesting but send me a note with more on the story and how you want to do it.”

The note often provided a clue to how well what Deford calls the trans-communication might work. It wasn’t perfect but seeing something in writing did help identify a surprising number of good talkers who were flat, boring writers.

(And the reverse sometimes was true: One of the most thoughtful writers I worked with had a scientific background and was so inarticulate that another editor and I first talked with him and almost wrote him off before it dawned on us that, yes, he was operating on a different level than we were—he was a lot smarter, he just wasn’t a talker.)

The divide became clearer in 2011 when I read the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. He has two ways of thinking: Fast thinking operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. Slow thinking, Kahneman says, gives attention to effortful mental activities and can override the impulses of thinking fast.

Talking is mostly fast thinking, writing is mostly slow thinking. Kahneman likely would agree with Deford that “the great advantage anyone reading something always has over being a mere captive listener is that the reader can conveniently pause and reread what she is tackling, making sure she understands clearly what is being foisted on her by the writer.”

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