Talking Words vs Writing Words

“Well, as we can see….”

“One thing leads to another and…..”

“Anyway, the point is…..”

“It’s like, you know….”

What’s a talking word?

In the course of my tutoring, I often find that I have to impress on students the importance of knowing how to write in an academic register.  This means words, phrases, and constructions that they use in their everyday language won’t work in an academic paper.  Many of the students I see will often use informal words and phrases in their papers (from the dreaded “like” to the grating “you know”).  These are “talking words” and I advise students to avoid them.

Why is this a problem in writing? What changes?  Why should we not encourage natural writing, a more conversational rhetoric?  If students are more comfortable writing, they may derive more pleasure from it and, oh, I don’t know, do it outside of the last-minute rush a day before an assignment is due.

“It’s like, you know….”

“Talking words” are named such because we say them all the time in speech. There, in face to face conversations, we can overlook many “sins”.  We have the luxuries of intonation, gesture, and posture to convey our meaning.  This is where meaning started, for that matter.  We spoke before we wrote, and when we first spoke, we spoke to each other.  So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the “talking” word or phrase, provided it stays in its proper environment.

The problem sets in when we change media.  In a paper, those coy or instinctual usages are left without valuable context.  They literally clog up the sentence.  A student has to know what they are saying and how to do that in the most efficient manner possible.   When a student writes a paper, they not only have page limits to observe, they also have to take into account the fact that there are multiple students and (usually) only one professor.  While a student has to concern themselves with a single audience, the professor must divide their attention between multiple students, each with developed essays.

This means multiple voices competing for attention.  Efficiency and formality are they students’ best bets to making sure their information comes across.  Having “clogged”, clumsy sentences means the professor or other instructor cannot “read” you.  We literally do not know what you are saying if you do not make your info a priority.

How to avoid this

The bare-bones method is simply telling a student.  When I see words and phrases that are informal and speech-like, I cross them out, and immediately explain to the student why this is unworkable styling.  But I am a professional, so I have the advantages of knowledge and experience.

For a student to learn to recognize these, I would suggest reading professional prose.  Take individual sentences and analyze them.  What is the point of the sample sentence?  What is the main idea?  Notice how fast this professional writer communicated what they needed to communicate.  See how many synonyms and alternate phrases are being used.  The only surefire way to learn style is to read widely and build up awareness of how language moves and operates in its written form.

 

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Wordplay I: Verb! That’s What’s Happening!

 

Ok, this is adorable, and very useful.  Our generation and its younger cohorts may not be familiar with Schoolhouse Rock, but we all should be.  In the 70s-early 80s ABC ran a show called “Schoolhouse Rock” between cartoons on Saturday mornings.  These were cute animated shorts with really catchy music that demonstrated grammar, science, American history, and civics.  This one here is all about verbs, the action words of the English language.  I’ll put this first to refresh everyone on the usefulness of verbs, and a reminder to have fun:

 

OK, while you’re still singing “verb!  that’s what’s happening!”, I want to ask you a question you may not get that much.  How interesting is your resume to read?  I’m not talking about the fascinating jobs you’ve had, but instead the style.  Are you using powerful, direct language?

It’s true that your resume will be read very quickly.  You still have to carefully write and revise this document, but it may only have a few seconds under a recruiter’s eyes.  How can you sell yourself that fast, especially when the sum total of your experience and abilities are reduced to a resume and letter?

Verbs!  Use your action words!

However, as useful as these words are, there is no magic formula.  There is no one combination of really popular verbs that will guarantee you an interview.  This is something that requires constant practice and refining.  So please avoid cliches: we all know the jokes about synergizing your leveraging potential.  Don’t do that.  Use your verbs to connote action, but make sure you make sense!  Above all, be concrete, be objective, and be succinct.

  • Be concrete

Look at your last job.  Did you do anything?  Say it.  You developed lesson plans, you tested products with focus groups, you compiled reports, you coded software for XYZ.  The fact that you did things is important, but so is how you say it.  Putting the action words first saves time, and gives the recruiter a better idea of your abilities.

Look at the job posting.  What verbs are they using?  Use those in your resume.  If they are looking for a lot of community outreach, choose verbs that highlight your people skills and communication.  Page 14 in this wonderful booklet from Rutgers University Career Services has a list of verbs in case you’re stuck.

  • Be succinct

No one, especially a busy hiring team or manager, wants to read what texts I assigned to my students in 2012, and why I chose those essays, and what writing behaviors I was trying to make them practice, and how the weather was, and what color sweater I was wearing and…and…and…

See what I mean?  You don’t even want to read that and you’re here on this blog by choice!  Wouldn’t you rather read that I:

Developed unique lesson plans for first year students, focusing on structure and grammar.

Boom.  Done.  The fictional manager gets the idea that I can be creative and practical, and work with a higher goal in mind (developing students).  I’ve bolded those words only for you here – don’t do that on your resume.

  • Be objective

You are fabulous, worthwhile, and an awesome person, and I’m sure you’ll make a great employee.  You are knowledgeable, capable, dynamic, and generally helpful.  But there’s no room for that in your resume.  You have to trust that you experience and your skill set will speak for you.  That can be scary, but you have to do it.

Your new potential boss doesn’t need to read about how loved you were at your previous job, or how much you enjoyed it.  Tell them what you did, how you did it, and make sure they know how you can do it for them, too.  It’s all about what you can bring to the new position, not you personally.