A Writer Who Speaks or A Speaker Who Writes? by Jack Popjes

Am I a writer who speaks, or a speaker who writes?

I don’t know. What I do know is that the words I write as I tell a story for my readers are completely different from the words I use when I tell that story to a live audience.

Recently, a professor of language and translation asked me for some stories on solving problems in Bible translation.

I was happy to write out five vivid examples from our translation work among the Canela. I had often used the stories as a 12-minute segment in informational speeches. I could help the teacher and I could use the stories in my weekly blog. I like a two-for-one deal!

I rapidly wrote out the stories with minimal changes from the way I usually told them, printed them out, and left them with my wife for her comments and critique.

When I returned to see how she was doing, I saw her sitting with a pensive look on her face. She shook her head as I sat down to hear her critique.

“As I read these stories, I could hear you and almost see you perform them on stage because I have heard and seen you tell them before. But this piece is too long, too detailed, too repetitive. It has little description, and the anecdotes just doesn’t work as written stories.”

She was right. When I speak, the words themselves carry only a small part of the meaning. My voice expresses tone, cadence, and volume that constantly change to carry meaning beyond the plain words.
Then there are my facial expressions: a frown, raised eyebrows, a grimace, or slack-jawed amazement.

My body language also carries meaning. I wave my arms, clench my fists, stomp my feet, and act out the characters’ actions all over the stage, sometimes among the audience.

But none of these devices are available to me when I write. As a writer, my words have to carry everything. I need the just right word, the exactly right verb, noun, or descriptive phrase. I also needed to delete all the repetitions and the fill-in words I have to use while moving from one part of the stage to another.

Revising the original 2,000-word draft, I had dashed off in half an hour took more than two hours. But it was worth it. My wife agreed; this version carried the message. A beta reader’s comments went into the last revision and it was good to go.

I have also done this in reverse, taking a written story from my blog and re-telling it to a live audience. That was far easier! I automatically filled in more dialogue, I spontaneously dramatized—using vocal tones, facial expressions, and body language galore—as I relived the story.

Hmm, the evidence seems to point to me being a speaker who writes, not a writer who speaks.

Jack PopjesJack Popjes started writing stories for their missionary newsletters during the decades he and his wife were Bible translators in Brazil. For the past 20 years, he has blogged weekly on missions, church, Christian spirituality, and Bible translation. His current blog is INsights & OUTbursts. He has print published three books and e-published two books of story based articles—all selected from his blogs. His storytelling ability makes him a popular speaker. jack@jackpopjes.com

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1 comment

  1. Pam Mytroen says:

    good point, Jack! Your story also shows how labor-intensive writing is, and how much we take for granted all the non-verbal cues we use as we speak.

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