Writing is a monologue based on dialogue.
To a reader or a listener, most texts appear like a monologue. That’s, after all, the definition of a monologue: a speech given by one person. So unless you are writing your text with a partner, it is easy to think of the result as embodying a single voice: your ideas, thoughts, and views. And maybe that is what the audience expects. When someone reads your text, they expect to hear you.
But an effective text that creates value for the audience is often based on dialogue. Having a continuous conversation as you write the text is the key to carving out its essence and perfecting it, so every word and sentence are like arrows pointing to a target: creating an impact.
Having an honest dialogue with another person as you write can be an amazing experience, but it is not always possible, and, let’s be honest, it is not for everyone. I, for one, can’t imagine kicking off a discussion with a friend or a colleague every couple of minutes when I am working on a text. Not all dialogues require a real, live partner. If you manage to have an open and honest internal dialogue with yourself as you write, you will not only create better texts — you will turn the writing process into a thought-provoking experience.
The Importance of Having a Dialogue
Before anything else, having a dialogue enables you to slow down. Having a dialogue requires you to slow down, even pause now and then.
Writing fluently is essential. Writers often report being “in the zone” while writing. If the act of writing is not fluent, your text will also not be eloquent. But making pauses for processing, considering, asking difficult questions, and carefully listening to the answers is no less important. If you just write fluently without stopping to think if you are still on track, your text is likely to wander off and become less coherent and focused.
The key is to balance the fluency of writing with intentional pauses. Having a dialogue, external or internal, is an excellent way to do that. You design a piece of content and then pause to process it for a while. You write part of the text and then slow down to challenge it or see it from a different perspective. These intentional breaks in which you talk with yourself or another person about what you write are great for letting things sink in, reflecting, and processing them. It is not an editing activity. It is an ongoing thinking process.
To process something is to change it. Whether external or internal, a dialogue is an excellent way to process your ideas and how they are phrased. When you write without constant dialogue, you are just dumping whatever you have in mind. It might turn out to be great, and it might not. If no questions are asked, you don’t have an opportunity to iterate your ideas, reconsider them, and refine them.
When you treat your writing as a thinking process, you create opportunities to refine and reshape your ideas. Some of them might even change radically during this dialogue. Eventually, this is what will help you perfect them. It is not an easy process, and as you start practicing it, it might seem time-consuming and counterproductive. Dialogues are rarely linear. You often take one step forward and then two steps back. But the result is a beautiful dance that can improve your text by orders of magnitude.
Dialogues are more interesting and engaging than monologues. And here’s the thing: even if you don’t include the conversation explicitly in your text, when you engage in a dialogue as you write, it affects your text. The audience can feel the presence of that other voice, even if they cannot pinpoint it or are even consciously aware of it. Dialogue-driven writing makes your text multidimensional.
The tension between different views, voices, perspectives, and nuances makes the text dynamic. A dialogue creates movement. It enables your text to evolve. Instead of just capturing what is on your mind, dialogue-driven writing adds layers of depth to the text. The result is richer, more profound ideas that strongly impact the audience.
How to Have a Dialogue
In a recent interview, author George Saunders spoke with Ezra Klein about his writing process:
“So the whole thing for me is to be reading my work as if I didn’t write it. As if I just found it on a bus seat or something. And then all the time, another part of the mind is watching that meter, basically saying, what would a first-time reader be feeling right now? In or out, in or out?”
It is a beautiful visualization of what happens in Saunders’ mind as he reads his written text. At the core of this process are a couple of basic questions, challenging the text and seeing it as a reader would. This routine of asking these questions and listening honestly to the answers is an excellent example of an internal dialogue. Yes, it is eventually a guess. Saunders does not invite a focus group to provide feedback on his text. He uses his intuition, experience, and inner voice instead. This conversation is not possible without actively making room for it.
We tend to think of dialogue as a conversation between two or more people. It is the most natural way to bring different perspectives, views, and opinions to the table. Whenever you can discuss your ideas with other people — do it.
The core of any dialogue is listening, respecting, asking, and challenging. When you play both sides of the conversation, it is far from being trivial. At least at first. Cultivating this internal voice and giving it its place requires practice. For some people, it is more complicated than listening to a real human being. But, when you are writing, an internal dialogue, like the one George Saunders described having, is often more practical. You can engage in an inner dialogue at any time and without any preparation. You carry your partner for the conversation inside your head.
Developing the skill of talking with yourself means you can use the power of dialogue throughout the writing process and beyond. Internal dialogue is a tool you can use to make better decisions and develop better ideas. The method George Saunders described is an excellent example of how talking with yourself can help you review your work once you have a draft ready. But while reviewing your text is an essential step, you can and should use internal dialogues way before writing even a single word.
Kicking off a conversation as you collect raw material for your text and start to design it helps you carve the essence of your ideas and shape them into compelling content. In a sense, any meaningful design activity requires a dialogue: an iterative process of asking, challenging, answering, and refining. The more questions you ask yourself as you structure your text, the fewer radical changes you will have to do later.
And while this dialogue, whether internal or external, must be open and not limited to a closed set of questions, the three following open-ended questions are an excellent place to start.
What Do I Wish to Say?
So, you have an idea you wish to write or talk about. Maybe you have already collected some raw material — some bits that you may or may not include later in your text. But what is it you really want to say?
The path between an idea and the final text is not linear, and it is certainly not immediate. As you write, your initial idea can evolve, change, or be refined. Occasionally, it will take an entirely different direction. Most of that will not be apparent to the audience, but it will affect the result. Without walking this winding path, you miss the opportunity to let your ideas grow and become more mature. It is easy to miss a more profound, more impactful point if you run straight ahead with the initial idea.
The first question you should ask yourself, and one you should not stop asking throughout the writing process, is, “What is it I am really trying to say?” As trivial as it may sound, it rarely is. There is frequently a distance between your initial idea and the essence of what you are trying to convey in your text. Processing the idea, refining it, and making sure it encapsulates the message you wish to send across to your audience is the most crucial thing in any form of effective communication. A close second is asking whether each statement, example, quote, and question you add to your text promotes that idea.
When I initially thought of the idea for this article, it was simple: dialogue is an excellent tool to use while writing. As I thought about it more, I realized that what I was aiming for was better described as an internal dialogue. I felt it is not trivial (and therefore worth developing as an article), but at the same time, it is much more accessible to people who write. I sensed that it has more value to you, the reader. From that point, I challenged every potential bit, from the George Saunders quote to the list of questions you are now reading, against this core idea. I asked myself: does this bit promote the core idea? Does it help the reader understand (or apply) the idea I try to convey?
It was a continuous dialogue that has set the tone for the entire text-design phase and kept popping up during the writing phase.
Asking yourself what you wish to say is an act of carving out the core of the idea and bringing it to the front. Failing to do that will result in a less impactful or unfocused text. To impact your audience, you have to filter out the noise and bring the essence of your ideas to the front. This essence is rarely identical to the spontaneous idea you had in the first place. More often, it is the result of continuous refinement in the form of a dialogue — a dialogue in which you must play the role of your audience. The question you must not stop asking is, if your audience takes only one thing with them, what would you want it to be?
What Do I Think About It?
When we write about something (or plan to talk about it publicly), we are usually already deeply involved and engaged with it. We know it inside out. After all, we feel confident enough to share our ideas. Writing about something you are well familiar with sounds like the right and natural thing to do, and it is. However, when you write about something you know very well, you risk working on automatic mode. Your writing will undoubtedly be fluent, but it will not necessarily be effective.
The alternative to writing automatically is to pause and listen to the thoughts invoked by what you write. When you give your thoughts the space to emerge and listen to them carefully, you can discover areas worth exploring — areas you haven’t considered before. These new territories can expand the topic or make it deeper. This is where your text will shine and where your audience will find the most significant value.
When I came up with the core idea of this article, it was all about the importance of having a dialogue as an integral part of writing. Then, I paused to think about the material I had collected. When I examined what I had, a new question emerged: how would such a dialogue look? What questions should I ask myself, and which of them are generic enough to benefit my readers? These questions, which weren’t in the original scope, have become the center of the article. They make the operative part of the text — the things you can try yourself immediately. If everything works well, you will find value in it.
Enabling yourself to think about what you are writing enfolds another opportunity: challenging your idea. As confident as you are about the subject of your writing, there is great value in continually asking yourself: am I right? Are there alternative ways to think of this? Are there different views that might shed new light on the subject?
The more you challenge your statement and ideas, your text becomes more effective. You do not need to include all these challenges in the text itself. Asking these questions is, first and foremost, a thought exercise. Asking and answering them as part of the writing process fuels the evolution of your ideas. Whether you decide to address them in your text explicitly or not, these questions can feed your text and make it more profound and professional. Having a conversation with different views and perspectives, even if the entire discussion is in your head, can strengthen your argument or open the way to new ideas. Either way, you benefit from it.
Every so often, this internal discussion does not end with a definite conclusion. You start this dialogue with a clear idea, and somewhere along the way, you are convinced there could be an alternative view that is no less valid. It may feel discouraging at first. We tend to prefer definite statements and clear conclusions. But allowing both views to be represented in your text in such cases will make it more profound and more appealing. Not everything is definite. Reflecting that by giving adequate space to different perspectives and even different conclusions makes your text more mature.
Two voices make a more interesting text. It doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to think of an alternative you don’t believe in. But don’t dismiss a valid voice either. Leverage it either to refine your idea or present a different perspective. In both cases, the audience will appreciate it.
The first question, “what do I wish to say” is a focusing question. It will likely narrow the scope of the text and direct you in choosing what to include in it and what should be left out. It may sound like a philosophical question, but it is an essential filtering criterion. When you ask yourself, “what do I think about it,” you go the opposite direction. It is a question designed to elaborate your text (and ideas), to find opportunities to explore adjacent areas, and consider alternative views. When having this part of the dialogue, you open up your field of view.
There is an inherent tension between these two questions. You focus the idea first, and then you explore possible expansions of it. It is crucial to maintain this tension and use both these questions throughout the writing process. If you ask yourself, “what do I wish to say” only at the beginning of the process, and later just consider the expansions, your text might quickly drift away from the original direction. As important as the exploration of adjacent territories is, it must constantly be challenged with the focusing part of the dialogue.
What you wish to say should always be the lighthouse guiding your way.
And the next question is your compass.
What Do I Feel About It?
When I started to design the article you are reading, I looked for an example that will help me demonstrate the internal dialogue. I preferred not to use text written by someone else. I wanted to describe the inner dialogue as I had experienced it. My first choice was my previous article. The writing process and the dilemmas I had were still vivid, and I could have easily demonstrated each of the questions as I had used them.
But then I paused and asked myself, what do I feel regarding this choice? More importantly, what would I feel if I was reading this text? It didn’t take a long internal discussion to acknowledge it felt cumbersome. Asking the reader to read another article I wrote while reading this one was not realistic. If I were the reader, I would probably not do it.
The next choice was obvious: use the same text you are reading and describe my internal dialogue while writing it. Luckily, I asked myself this question and answered it before writing even a single word. I was just planning the article and collecting bits for it. Asking myself, “what do I feel about it?” and answering it honestly saved me quite a bit of work and, more importantly, improved the text you are reading.
The third question in dialogue-driven writing is my compass. In my writing process, it is mostly an internal compass. Having this dialogue with someone else can be extremely helpful, mainly if you are not yet accustomed to having it in your mind. This part of the dialogue is where I try to tune into the reaction or the feeling that the text, and each piece within it, invoke. Among the three questions, this is the most subtle one. If the two previous questions involved rational thinking and conscious decisions, this one operates at an emotional and intuitive level.
In his interview, George Saunders describes the result of this part of the internal dialogue as if it is binary: “in or out.” When I ask myself, “what do I feel,” the possible answers are more diverse. I might feel, for example, that the bit I am reading is obvious. I don’t try to prove it to myself or argue about it. I try to leverage this feeling and consider how to make it less obvious (assuming I prefer not to bore my audience with obvious statements). Of course, one of the options would be to omit it, but it is only one option.
I might feel that this bit does not belong where I’ve placed it. In such a case, I try to understand why I feel that way and consider where that bit would be more effective. I might feel something is not comprehensible, or it raises more questions the audience will expect to be answered, or it is just not good enough. All this happens in a split of a second. It is not the outcome of in-depth analysis. I listen to my guts. I could argue with almost any such feeling, but I try hard not to. Instead, I act upon it.
The question “what do I feel” can result in filtering (as George Saunders described it). It could also result in refinement, elaboration, or going deeper into ideas you initially thought were trivial. Anything goes if it makes the text “feel better” to you, and as much as you can guess, your audience. You have to be honest with yourself and tune in to your reactions. At the same time, you should read the text as if you are reading it for the first time — just as your audience will. This by itself is a considerable challenge, and if you are just starting, doing this with someone else can help you develop this important internal voice.
When you listen to your inner voice that knows intuitively what works, you know you had a meaningful dialogue.
Having a dialogue about any idea is a great way to gain new insights, better understanding, and alternative views. Having a dialogue amplifies the thinking process.
Dialogue-driven writing takes that idea even further. When you accompany the entire writing process with dialogue, from phrasing the core idea through designing the text and up to the final editing, your text becomes better. It is more coherent, more engaging, and eventually more effective. Whether you have an external dialogue with a colleague or a friend, or an internal dialogue, this processing can make the difference between a dull text and content that has real value.
Sometimes, bits of the dialogue will find their way into the text. In other cases, they will just help you shape it better. Either way, a dialogue-driven approach will help you create better foundations for communicating your ideas.
Like any good dialogue, the dialogue accompanying your writing must be open and honest. For an external conversation to be open and honest, you have to find someone you trust to share their thoughts and reactions without holding back. Achieving that with an internal dialogue is often more challenging. We need to put a particular line of thinking on hold and consider our ideas through a different lens. Even then, we might dismiss or suppress the other voices in our heads. To be open and honest with yourself is not always trivial.
Asking yourself what you wish to say, what you think about it, and what it makes you feel is the starting point of any dialogue-driven writing. These questions are a good trigger for the discussion. An open and honest dialogue will rarely end there. You cannot create an effective dialogue based on a short list of predefined questions. When you immerse yourself in the dialogue, and you listen carefully to the answers, new questions will emerge. Don’t dismiss them. Be ready to leverage them and make them an integral part of the conversation. As the dialogue evolves, so will your text.
Thinks of a time you had an internal dialogue (not necessarily in the context of writing). Consider how it helped you shape an idea or how to phrase it.
Read something you have written before and have a dialogue (internal or external) based on the text. Ask the three leading questions and consider what you would have written differently.