Thomas Russell Wingate
February 1998

There are two cultures side by side: the oral culture and the written culture.

In the oral culture, you learn by being told things and being shown things. In the written culture, you learn by reading and by figuring out underlying principles. A lot of people think there is only one culture and their speech—see My Fair Lady—makes it plain who they are.

Both cultures have habits they prefer. In the oral culture, you are adding to your words body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, the way you are dressed, and the responses of the persons to whom you are speaking. You know fairly soon whether you have been rightly “read,” and, if not, you can correct yourself right away. In the written culture, you have no idea who is reading your output, and you must carry your message across without winks, nudges, and any shared-but-never-discussed background. Thus, you must compensate by precision of language and by factual accuracy.

In the oral culture, factual accuracy is far less prized. Indeed, the written culture developed to preserve accuracy as well as nuance and distinction. The written culture always sets itself apart from the oral culture. Written culture is equated in universally made subliminal judgment with high status and admired quality.

Remember or observe that prolonged immersion in one culture or the other affects a writer’s entire outlook. Schools which suppose that learning “happens” through oral reports and group discussions are subtly damaging to a writer. Assigned readings and written reports inculcate structure and awareness of proportion.

Effective speaking often requires a high tempo. Effective writing is more a matter of selecting and positioning than of uttering. The former is like a catchy tune; the latter is like sturdy furniture.

It is hard to say whether films are in the oral culture or the written culture or both. Movies begin with a script proposal and must acquire a script before actors can rehearse. The next time you sit through a film that pleases you, ask yourself what was in the writing that helped you like it. You will find this exercise rewarding—and, best of all, free.

A literary character may be in the oral culture. The writer must make him (or her) sound like it. But the writer and the reader are in the written culture; both are on safari in a country at least half-foreign, where dangers lurk. But the writer must not forget that the writer and the reader intend to return home. Those wholly in the oral culture will not notice the writer’s work unless the film industry invests in it.
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