Why do we write things down?

The short answer – it forces the writer to concentrate their mind, and it’s quicker and easier for the reader to absorb.

The medium answer – It takes less time to read something than it takes to write it in the first place. If we compare reading with listening, a 1500 word piece will take between 10 and 12 minutes to speak out loud. An average reader could get through that number of words at least 25 per cent faster.

The longer answer – The written word requires a balance between quality of thought and quantity of words. It’s a creative process, with most of the time-consuming bit hidden from the reader.

A common target for writers would be 1000 words a day. Everything depends, of course. That 1000 words a day would be for creative writing, entirely new words for a story that you are inventing in your head. And you would accept that many other factors went into that act of creation – most importantly your down-time, because no-one can keep up non-stop creativity.

Creativity takes a lot of energy, and the words written on the page are the end result of a process which also involves mess, daydreaming, and allowing things to process at an unconscious level. The neuroscience is only just starting to find ways of proving that back-burner time is an essential part of the cycle: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-neuroscience-of-creativity/

A journalist friend aims for 1000 words a day of new copy, 3000 words a day for editing.

For the reader, even that 3000 words – a whole day’s work – would take about 15 minutes to read.

Let’s go back to the original question. Why write things down, as opposed to speaking the words out loud?

Most of us find it comfortable to listen to a speaker at between 130 to 150 words a minute. Someone who is speaking at the top end of that will probably come across as being a bit nervous, because speaking quickly, or making any fast movement, is interpreted as being less confident.

What about the quality of those words though? Most of us can speak for a long time, as long as it doesn’t need to make sense. We see this when politicians in the UK or the USA make a calculated effort to “talk it out”, or filibuster. That’s the decision to take up so long talking that there is no time to pass the law you are talking about. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2012/12/05/17-bills-that-likely-would-have-passed-the-senate-if-it-didnt-have-the-filibuster/?utm_term=.490298aa4dbd

The longest filibuster is probably 24 hours and 18 minutes, by Senator Strom Thormund in an attempt to block the Civil Rights Act in 1957.

Let’s assume he spoke at the slower end of average, which would mean 1458 minutes at 130 words a minute, which is just a shade under 190,000 words. Reading something of that length (two medium length books) could be done, physically, and with intravenous sustenance, in about 16 hours. That is still a saving of one third, over a lifetime of listening to people trying to block progress.

A freak-ish speed reader could get through that output in less than 20 minutes, at 1000 words a minute. But only one per cent of us can do that.

When we speak, most of us are making it up as we go along. There’s a famous quote which might be Mark Twain, or Winston Churchill – “If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now”.

And back to the short answer. I sat down to write this 49 minutes ago. It probably took you three minutes to read. That’s why I’m starting a blog.

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