Write How You Speak

Some people want to do philosophy but will barely talk on a philosophy forum because it takes them a lot of time and effort to write anything. They also don’t do enough private writing – notes, journaling, written brainstorming, written pro/con lists, essays, tree diagrams, etc.

(Other quiet people have other reasons, such as not wanting to speak in public where they could be judged. Or they don't respect and value other people’s ideas and perspectives, so they don’t see much point to communicating. I’m not going to talk about those issues in this article.)

Having a difficult time writing is common. Most people have little experience writing. Many people had negative experiences with writing in school. (And a lot of people aren’t great at touch typing. But I won’t discuss typing here except to say it’s a skill that’s valuable for philosophers and can be practiced.) People learn to listen and speak before they learn to read or write, so for many people listening and speaking always seems like the primary way of interacting with language.

There are many different paths that people can use to make philosophical progress. Many paths use a lot of writing, but a few don’t. There are other options. What prerequisites you need to develop a skill depends on the path you’re using to get there.

Issues with writing can be hard. People can get stuck and stay stuck. But writing issues can also be relatively easy to fix and get past. I'll present an approach that is worth understanding and considering.

Most people with writing issues can hold a conversation in person. It might take them an hour to write a 500 word post, but they could speak 500 words to a friend in 5 minutes (12x faster).

A lot of writing time is thinking time where you decide what to say, rather than figuring out how to say it (choosing your words) or actually writing the words (typing). But you also have to decide what to say when speaking to a friend. That can often be done pretty quickly.

When speaking, people worry about their wording less. But what they say is still mostly understandable. In most cases, more precise wording doesn’t solve or prevent any important problem. It’s not worth the effort. Just speaking normally, without stopping to think about wording, is good enough. (There are some topics, conversations and debates where high precision is very important. But it’s often unnecessary, especially for beginner and intermediate level discussions.)

So why does writing take people so much longer than speaking? Because they’re making a mistake. Often, the mistake is trying to pretend to be something they’re not. They want to write as if they’re a more advanced philosopher than they are, and that gets them stuck because they don’t know how to do it. They can spend hours writing one post and it usually still isn’t very good (which is frustrating and disappointing after all that effort spent).

The way you can speak to people and hold a conversation quickly is a skill you have now. It’s one of the resources you already have that you can build on. You can use it as a starting point for incremental progress.

How? Write how you would speak. If you're not sure how, speak and then write down what you said. You can record your speaking and then transcribe it word for word and that’d be easier and faster than a lot of the ways people write. Or you may be able to speak out loud and then write something similar immediately after. Later, as you get better, you can just think of what you’d say out loud, then write it without actually speaking the words. Even later, with more practice, you can just directly write, without any extra steps or considerations, and have it come out quickly and easily, like speaking.

When you write down your speech, don't stop to think critically about it until after you finish writing it down. You can throw the whole thing away and try again if it's really bad; you're not forced to use it; but don't stop in the middle to doubt yourself. Finishing things and being willing to just redo it from the beginning several times is actually a good technique in general that can also be used with writing. In our culture, editing is overrated, while just writing multiple separate drafts is underrated. I often just write completely new versions of things until one is pretty good, at which point I'll use editing to finish it. That's easier (and more interesting) than taking a bad draft and trying to fix it with editing. It's really useful if you can quickly and easily make something that's reasonably complete; that means it won't be a big deal to start over and do similar things a few more times. In contrast, if it takes a ton of work to finish the first time, you won't want to start over, so you won't make as many things, won't get as much practice, and will be stuck trying to fix things with heavy editing (which is generally really hard and doesn't work out well for people). So, don't be picky; if your words are reasonably understandable then they're good enough to communicate. And if you must try to improve what you said, starting over (and going quickly) is often better than trying to fix an unsatisfactory version.

So, in general, you should start with the way you already know how to communicate with people (speech). If you can hold a conversation in real time with a friend, then you could also write forum posts quickly by writing the same things you would say to the friend. After you're able to communicate easily and freely, then you can start adding in little improvements here and there to make your writing more philosophical, more precise, more designed for writing rather than speaking, etc. Solve problems as they come up. Use your conversation abilities that you already have, and then if/when you run into a problem, fix it. That way you’ll learn writing skills that are useful to issues you're actually facing.

On many forums, you can post audio recordings instead of writing. However, many people prefer to read instead of listen because it’s more convenient for them – faster, easier to skim, doesn’t require headphones, easier to quote when replying, easier to reread specific parts, etc. For the convenience of other people, it’s helpful to type in the words from your recording. You can also get a computer to translate speech to text, however it will make errors (like replacing one word with a different word that makes no sense there), so it won’t be up to the quality of typical forum post writing. Software-generated transcripts are much better than nothing if you're posting a video (in which case they should include timestamps like subtitle files do), and they could work for forum posts with a friendly, understanding audience.

While posting audio-only is generally not appreciated on forums, you can post audio and also text versions of the same message. There will often be some people who prefer listening to the audio version. The people who like listening to the audio version are more likely to use both than the people who prefer to read the text version. Even if someone listens to the audio, if they want to review anything you said, search for keywords, or quote anything, they’ll probably use the text version. Many forums won’t want you to upload a large number of audio files directly to the forum, but you can post your audio clips for free on YouTube (or various other sites) and then share links. (YouTube only allows video, but you can use a still image with your username, a logo, a date and title, or something simple like that. You could use the same still image every time.)

Don’t try to create a new way of holding conversations from scratch for philosophy. It’s much more effective to use your pre-existing ability to hold conversations (in person, in voice). That’s like giving yourself a huge head-start instead of starting near zero. Then you can make one adjustment at a time to address problems you encounter until it works well for your philosophy discussions.

The two biggest changes to make are switching from voice to text and being more philosophical with what you think and say. People grow up speaking but not speaking like a philosopher. Being more philosophical will come naturally with time and practice as you learn more philosophy (but only if you actually do philosophical learning activities, including intentional practice). If you don’t participate much because it takes you a long time to write anything, then you're missing out on a lot of opportunities. By the way, learning to write quickly and well is important for journalling, free writing, note taking, and other activities besides discussions.

Is it possible to build up a new way of conversing from scratch? Yes, but it's typically a lot harder, so it’s generally a bad idea. People sometimes hear "harder" as meaning it takes some more effort but it will work. So it sounds like a good option to them as long as they're willing to make the effort. That is not what I mean. It's hard in the sense that people typically fail. In general, you should look for easier options primarily to increase your chances of success, and only secondarily to save effort. Failure is a larger concern than effort.

The reason I’ve recommended learning grammar to people is not so they can start at the beginning and build up all the skills needed to hold a written philosophy conversation. It’s because they keep making errors which ruin the (overly advanced) conversations they’re trying to have. To have those conversations effectively, they need more precision and fewer errors. But most people should be avoiding topics that require high precision until later after they make a bunch of philosophical progress and have some accomplishments and past successes. Basic knowledge of grammar is also really helpful for getting started doing basic analysis of texts. Having a more conscious, explicit understanding of grammar helps with creating a more conscious, explicit understanding of what a text says, rather than relying mainly on your subconscious to interpret it. Looking at things more consciously and explicitly is a major activity of philosophers (e.g. Socrates advocated the (consciously, explicitly) examined life).

Basically people need to be honest and be willing to converse how they usually do, and perhaps reveal that they aren’t yet very philosophical – and then they’ll be able to make more progress and surpass most people. You should admit that your ability to hold a written conversation, while sounding smart, is basically non-functional and that it takes you hours to write things that aren’t very good (that isn’t everyone but it’s a lot of people who come to philosophy forums). Then you can participate using your functional way of communicating. Focus on turning what you would say out loud into written words without trying to make it sound smart or sound like how people write. Written and spoken English have differences, so if you write down spoken English with no changes it sounds a little weird, but it’s understandable, useful and functional anyway. You can tell people it’s spoken English (and link them to this article) if you want to explain why it doesn’t sound like elegant prose.

It’s so much easier to take a functional skill and start adding new features and making edits to it rather than trying to use a skill that doesn’t actually work and then trying to fix it (while also usually being in denial about how non-functional it is).

People sometimes think it’s embarrassing to not already be a good writer. But being a good writer is not the default, including for college graduates, including English majors. There was nothing in your life before that could reasonably be expected to have turned you into a good writer. School was mediocre and never directed you to get nearly enough writing practice. It’s not your fault that you aren’t a good writer yet. It’s just a thing you haven’t learned yet. But you have learned to speak with people – quickly and easily – so use that and build on it, and with a lot of thought and practice you can become a good writer in the future.

People also try to jump straight to advanced philosophy topics. Often they come to a forum because they’re interested in those topics. But then they try to make precise, logical arguments about hard, complex topics – when they don't know how to write well, and also couldn’t speak precise, logical arguments in a spoken conversation. It's possible to reach advanced topics pretty quickly (enough to engage with them some), but not instantly. You should learn to post at all first before trying to post about hard topics. Do one thing at a time. If you find learning to post at all hard – if that gets you stuck – then doing it while also dealing with hard topics would not have worked better (it would have worked worse).