Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"But It Isn't Grammatically Correct!"

This past summer, I began splitting my hours at the Writing Center between regular consulting with students, and podcasting and video-editing with our media team. Texas A&M produces two podcasts- “Write Away,” which targets professors and faculty members, and “Write Right,” which focuses on students. These podcasts cover everything from interviews with professors about their methods of writing instruction to mini-lessons on specific writing-related topics to highlights of the services our Writing Center offers. Our video productions commonly consist of training videos for consultants and instructional screencasts.

As a Communications major, I was excited about the opportunity to develop skills in these areas. Yet before the summer, the extent of my “experience” with podcasting consisted of nothing more than downloading and listening to them. I remember reading about principles of podcasting in a Communications Theory class, yet this is just one of those areas where book knowledge pales in comparison to actual practice.

The first podcast I produced was a “Quick Tip” – a short reference guide for students – on writing memos. When I started, I assumed the most challenging part would be mastering all the technicalities that come with splicing and synching different audio files. I was confident in my writing and speaking ability – all I had to do was write a page about memos and then read it out loud, right? As it turns out, I really had to stretch my conception of “good writing” to create an appropriate script.

In any formal essay for class or an application, I generally express myself in a very sophisticated and elaborate style. My paragraphs are intricately woven with complex sentence structures, qualifying phrases, and educated diction. In the context of academic papers, I find this style extremely effective, picking apart the layered meanings of language until I reach just the right nuance for iterating a particular idea. And these points come across clearly, provided that readers have the words in front of them. Even in these last several sentences, you can begin to see what I mean.

Well, it’s one thing to read writing silently; it’s another to attempt to articulate your sentences out loud. When I first tried to record my script on memos, you can imagine that I was a little surprised when those same sentences that “sounded” just right in my head translated into a confusing mess when spoken. I quickly learned the importance of communicating my thoughts concisely and directly. In oral recordings, the only tool your audience has to follow your thought process is their auditory retention span. Too many shifts within a sentence or idea are confusing. However, changing my scripts consisted of more than just breaking down a few compound-complex sentences. To make myself understood, I ended up throwing several grammar rules out the window as well. For example, when we speak, we subconsciously ignore some prescriptive no-no’s, such as starting sentences with a conjunction or ending them with a preposition. We don’t stop to analyze whether or not our subject and verb agree. We start sentences with ambiguous references such as “it is,” “this is,” and “there is.” If we use words like ‘each’ or ‘everyone’ as our subject, we are likely to tack on the plural ‘their’ instead of ‘his or her’ later on as a corresponding pronoun. Even though these tendencies aren’t grammatically correct, they’re descriptive of the ways we actually talk. Not only are they permissible in spoken communication, they’re ideal. Speakers want to be conversational and able to relate to their audience, a difficult thing to do if they sound like they’re reading a dense essay.