A typist’s tale

In the dark days after graduating from university, and before convincing someone to employ me properly, I paid my bills by taking on the usual string of temp jobs and piecemeal work. One of these jobs was to transcribe audio files.

The audio files had to be typed up verbatim. The rules were that I could cut out the ‘erms’ and ‘errs’, but nothing else. So every ‘yeah but’, every ‘like’, every ‘you know’ and every false start to a sentence had to go in.

The finished texts were some of the more surreal pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. It’s not what people said that was odd (though I could tell you some stories). It’s how they were saying it. Here’s an example:

Well, I mean, I think it is slightly more than, like, you’d have for a smaller car but I think I have heard via, kind of, the news and, sort of-, they’re going to really be, you know, penalising, you know, four by four owners.

And here’s another:

No I kind of do the whole leftover thing so if I get a chance to do Tuesday then I, kind of, do a big thing so that serves me until-, both of us until Thursday-, kind of, type deal.

That’s what speech – actual speech – looks like. It’s incoherent and rambling, even though, when spoken out loud, it makes perfect sense. That’s because when you’re talking to someone you can use other signals, like your facial expressions, or intonation, to get your message across.

When you write, the reader doesn’t see your face or hear your voice going up and down. You need a different set of visual clues. Grammar and punctuation take the place of a raised eyebrow, a hand gesture, or a pause.

So when we say to write more like you speak, we don’t mean grammar and punctuation go out the window. They’re your best friends; use them wisely and you’ll keep your reader’s attention.

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