Inner speech

When we think using words, most of us are aware of ‘hearing’ our own voice in our minds – a phenomenon which psychologists call ‘inner speech’. This includes things like ‘the voice of conscience’, but also things like silently repeating a phrase or a number to yourself so that you don’t forget it, insulting or praising someone in the privacy of your own thoughts, planning what you’re going to say or do, and so on.

There are times when inner speech is very noticeable, and times when you’re not necessarily sure whether you’ve done it or not. Much of the time inner speech might be condensed and fleeting – since it’s a kind of talking to ourselves, we often don’t need to provide much in the way of context. However, in activities which involve a bit more complexity we’re more likely to expand our inner speech, and therefore to notice it.

EXERCISE 1: A sample of inner speech

Set a timer for 1 minute. During that time, write down all of your thoughts (i.e. your inner monologue/dialogue), as quickly as you can.

The role of inner speech in writing and reading

So what is inner speech for? One of the main ideas is that it’s useful for things like action-planning, problem-solving, memory, and motivation. There’s also some evidence which suggests that we also use inner speech when reading. Some people are very aware of how typography can alter how inner speech sounds: how italics can give certain words emphasis, for instance, in ways that might completely change the meaning of a sentence, or how capitals can make the INNER VOICE SEEM LIKE IT’S SHOUTING. However, studies on the subject suggest that people notice their inner speech when reading to different degrees – for some, it’s like a full-on audiobook running in their head, while there are others who aren’t sure that there’s any inner ‘sound’ at all when they read.

When it comes to writing, inner speech seems to be equally varied – not just in terms of how it affects what ends up on the page, but in terms of how it relates to the voices within the narrative (or poem, for that matter). Some of the writers we surveyed said that their characters’ voices felt very different from their ordinary inner speech, and were therefore separate from it:

‘Characters feel “outside” me even though I’m hearing them internally. If they don’t feel separate from me, then I can’t hear their voices. But that also means that if I feel like I can control their voices then I can’t hear them – they go silent.’

However, at least as many other writers stated that their characters’ voices were a part of their inner speech, even if they did not entirely ‘sound’ the same (because of age, accent, gender, etc.):

‘I suppose it’s a kind of ventriloquism. Ultimately it’s me speaking to myself, but imagining/putting on a different voice to do it.’

Finally, there was also a significant minority of writers who said that they did not hear their characters’ voices at all, even if their characters sometimes seemed to act of their own accord:

‘Once they are present, they engage in the action seemingly without any guidance. I don’t “hear” them but I know what they’re saying, seeing, feeling, and I just write it down.’

EXERCISE 2: What’s your inner speech like?

In this exercise, we invite you to reflect on your own inner speech and the role in plays in your creative writing practice by considering how you would answer a series of questions. Some of the questions explore what your own verbal thinking is like; others look at the way your characters’ voices and thoughts feature in your inner speech.

You can download the full list of questions here. There’s no need to answer all of them – just have a go at as many as you think will be useful!