Sunday, April 19, 2015

Writing for Readers, Writing for Listeners

This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly.  The version here is the way I submitted it to them.The phrase in red was cut by the editor.

I have never met Diana Crisman Smith, so the voice in my head that read her article ("Does It Sound Like You?" June 2014) was generic. Not even generic female. Nearly everything I read comes with a voice in my head and when I know – or have heard – the writer, I usually hear the virtual echo of the actual voice. I don't suppose there is anything extraordinary about that.

My own writing tends pretty much towards the same informal style as my speech. Certainly in my blog but also in articles that I occasionally write for publication. That is the case both in my native American-English and in Hebrew. And although I like it that way, it is not deliberate.

Even in the two short paragraphs above, I have used several sentence fragments, begun a sentence with "and" and used the informal "pretty much" and "I don't suppose." My writer-friend Varda, who looks over most of what I write for publication, knows to leave that kind of thing alone.

The Panel
During the summer, I had a different kind of challenge. I was a participant in a panel discussion at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies' annual conference, in Salt Lake City,  on the subject "Internet Collaboration: How Do We Share Our Family Trees Online?" which was a polite way of saying "Geni – Yes or No?" I was "No." My indeterminate cousin Adam Brown was "Yes" and the publisher of the quarterly Avotaynu, Gary Mokotoff, spoke for "a third way." Sallyann Sack-Pikus, the editor of Avotaynu, was the moderator.

This panel was the continuation of a debate that began at last year's conference and continued in the pages of Avotaynu. To tell the truth, I was not crazy about doing this as I am not fast on my feet in debate – certainly not at Adam's level. But I had been front and center in this charge both in Avotaynu and on Facebook, so I hadn't much choice.

According to the rules Sallyann set, each of was to speak fifteen minutes from prepared text and then we would challenge each others' positions, before taking questions from the audience. We would see each others' remarks in advance in order to prepare our challenge questions.

The Problem
So I finally wrote it up about ten days before the conference, but when I read it aloud to myself to see how close I was to the assigned fifteen minutes, it just didn't sound right. It didn't sound like a speech or a presentation. It sounded like an article.

I have been speaking from notes since I was a youth leader in high school and have been using Power Point for years. I know how to do that. I have written letters to editors, op-eds and pieces for genealogy publications – I know how to do that too. I have never written a speech and I had just demonstrated to myself that I don't know how.

The sentences were too long, the structure of the thoughts too complex. In an article, if you don't get it right away you can reread the paragraph. That doesn't work when you speak from text, even if the full text is included in the handout

I had written this for readers, not for listeners.

The problem was that it was Thursday. I was going to the States on Sunday and would be busy with family matters followed by a week at GRIP in Pittsburgh before heading to the conference.

The Solution
The solution was in Pittsburgh, my home town. While attending my GRIP course, I stayed with Aunt Betty and Uncle Ken, one of whom – I forget which – is a sibling of my father. Uncle Ken
Photo by
Hannah Simon Goldman
has been retired from his job as a scientist for twenty-five years (do the math!) and spends one day a week at the University of Pittsburgh mentoring graduate students, mostly visiting Asians. Much of what he does involves helping them prepare and present papers.

He read my speech and asked many questions about genealogy – both the material itself and the nature of the research. And we worked on it. We looked at the sentence structure and we listened. My high school class just had its fiftieth reunion, so I am obviously not a youngster, but I was delighted to have an older, more experienced person helping me out, even if it was several hours after his bed-time.

By the time we were finished – by the time I left Pittsburgh – the words were 95% the same but it was not the same presentation. It sounded different. It sounded like it was meant to be heard, not read.

The Result
I was supposed to be showing how my way of presenting my research was collaborative and online without a "tree," so I jabbed with a few short sentences like "You can't say that's not collaborative" and "That's certainly collaborative." Those sentences get cut by an editor ten times out of ten. But they work in a speech.

My two-paragraph quote from Randy Seaver was relegated to the handout, as was my anecdote about the announcement from Geni that I am someone's "wife's aunt's husband's fourth cousin's wife's sister's husband's nephew's wife's mother's husband." The person responsible for that was in the audience and everyone already knew the joke.

The paragraph about my contact with the great nephew of Cousin Leo the Spy, received a new ending. "Now I have more. Now he knows more."

I changed my speech pattern a bit, not to slow it down, but to make it more deliberate. The punch lines punched.

The pro-tree position emphasized technology, young people and new researchers. I took a whack at that with this:
And an extensive web of DNA matches is about as collaborative as you can get! Even among the endogamous. Let me say that again for emphasis. An extensive web of DNA matches is about as collaborative as you can get! That is where much of my work is concentrated these days. And that is where many of tomorrow's researchers can be found.

In addition to issues like sentence length and complexity of thoughts, you can get away with bad syntax, bad grammar and even repeated words in speech, way more easily than in writing. And it's not that one is harder and one easier. They are simply different.

The handout referred to in this article can be found at