Why You Should Never Write Like You Talk

Why You Should Never Write Like You Talk

The worst piece of writing advice I ever heard was to write the way I talk.

The next time you have a conversation, listen to yourself. If you wrote the way you talked, your writing would be riddled with space-filler words and phrases such as “like” and “um” and “you know what I mean?”

You’d rely on your inflection to make your meaning clear. Your vocabulary would go right down the toilet. And if you’re anything like me, you’d curse a lot more than palatable for your average business website.

Write like you talk always struck me as incredibly foolish advice.

In fact, I think writing like you talk is half the impetus behind some of the poorly written articles I review for guest posts on this blog. So many people out there think it’s a great idea to start a post the way they’d start a verbal conversation:

“Hey, I’m Tom, and I bet you’re wondering who I am.”

No. I’m wondering why you’re writing the start of an article the way you’d introduce yourself at someone else’s family reunion.

I have a lot of prejudices against this advice of write like you talk, but I recently read something that made me reconsider.

Maybe the problem isn’t writing the way we talk.

Maybe the problem is that we don’t talk well enough.

Advice From Someone Who Writes More Than I Ever Will

There’s an essayist, a very contrarian sort of writer, named Christopher Hitchens. He showed up in a Flavorwire collection of “Helpful Advice from History’s Fastest and Most Prolific Writers,” and his little blurb actually gave the hated advice: “Write more the way you talk.”

Well, obviously, I was not pleased.

I didn’t even know who this guy was, but clearly he didn’t know what he was talking about. I read the rest of the blurb just to prove it – and then Hitchens changed my mind completely:

To my writing classes, I used to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write.

Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’

That had its duly woeful effect.

What Hitchens was saying was essentially this: yes, everyone who can verbally communicate can also communicate in words. But few people can verbally communicate effectively.

So here’s my amendment to the hated advice:

Write the way you talk – if you can speak persuasively, eloquently, and clearly.

Which brings us to the next question: what do you do if you can’t do either?

Be Aware of Your Words

Most of the time, we’re not terribly aware of how we sound when we communicate, either in writing or in spoken conversation. I can’t tell you how many miscommunications occurred because I thought an email was written tersely or someone I was speaking with misinterpreted what I was saying.

We have spats all the time over miscommunication. And yet very few of us are actually aware that we are miscommunicating until someone draws our attention to it by being offended.

The next time you write an email or have a conversation – even if it’s just with your best friend, who knows you well and would know you were kidding if you told her you sometimes have an urge to kick puppies – be aware of the words you choose.

Be aware of how you sound to a stranger overhearing you.

Be aware of how you would react if you heard someone else say the same sentence.

We get so used to being able to speak easily that we treat it like walking – it just happens, naturally, and we don’t need to think about it anymore. Except we do. When we stop paying attention, we’re more likely to stumble.

Stumbling happens in your writing, too.

Choose the Right Words

If you want your writing to improve, then you need to think in a way that communicates better. It’s not easy to pick the right word, both in speech and in writing, but make an effort.

Eliminate space-fillers such as “um” and “like”- they’re usually conveying something in the inflection that is supposed to carry extra information.

Don’t use emoticons to get your meaning across – this is basically the equivalent of smiling to show you’re joking. If you feel you need an emoticon to show that the sentences was meant lightheartedly, rewrite the sentence.

Rely wholly on words, and choose them carefully.

If you want to learn more about writing - in a way that sounds natural, personable and that reaches your readers - sign up today for the Damn Fine Words newsletter. You'll pick up tons of writing tips, and be on your way to walking the talk of writing.

Post by Taylor Lindstrom

Taylor hails from Boulder, CO, and she blogs for people who are too good to fail over at... well, Too Good to Fail. Go check out her inspiring posts and beautiful encouragement now.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. I just received some criticism from a client about a article I did for them. On re-reading it, I can see I wrote it like I speak. Then I opened my email and saw this, it was a timely reminder. I’m re-writing said article. Thanks for this, it was just in time.

  2. Great post. This reminded me of this Taylor Mali piece: “Totally, like whatever, you know?”
    http://youtu.be/pKyIw9fs8T4

  3. I can see why “write like you talk” sounds like bad advice. I think what people REALLY mean when they say it is: “write simply and cleanly,” OR “don’t write like a pompous ass.” I always read all my work aloud before sending it out, to ensure it SOUNDS like the spoken word (without the umms and ahs and digressions and unfinished sentences, of course.) In fact, I wrote a column about that this week: http://www.publicationcoach.com/free-articles/reading_aloud.php

    • It really is good advice if you can take it with some common sense, but many people apparently take it very literally, and that’s where you get those posts that start with introductions and the little inside jokes that don’t make sense. I’m all for reading aloud, though. I think I’ve advocated it at least a dozen times in various posts. It’s the advice everyone agrees with, but nearly no one takes.

  4. Taylor, I never really examined the advice of “write like you talk”. However, after reading this post and the deconstruction of this advice, I now better understand the meaning. If you are able to speak well with a good vocabulary, then maybe you can transfer those words to writing. Most likely with some modification though. Actually, I previously associated the “write like you talk” advice not in a literal sense but rather meant as an effort to make your writing flow better. Thank you for this post.

    • Sounds like you and Daphne have more or less the same take on that advice, and I think you’re right. Unfortunately, there are always those who have difficulty distinguishing between literal and metaphorical advice, and this post is designed to talk to those people. And hopefully offer some helpful advice on how to improve both written and spoken communication for those who never mis-took that credo in the first place.

  5. This is an interesting conversation. I majored in English (more than a couple years ago). My husb did not, yet he will often correct my use of slang or a made up word that occasionally pop up in our conversations. He says it’s like nails on a chalkboard to him sometimes when I do that. Between the two of us, I am less concerned with worrying about using “proper” English, the kind we all learned in high school/college.

    The thing is, more often than not, people don’t adhere to all the rules all the time. There are so many nuances to English, let alone personal styles, and regional differences. And that’s just in the USA. Someone in southern Kentucky or Alabama, will often sound/write differently than a Yankee like me.

    When I’ve heard the advice we’re discussing here, it’s often been given in the spirit of don’t try so hard to remember all the rules and get everything perfect. Don’t try to write in a voice that is not your own.

    Should you be completely sloppy about it? No. Are you going to clean up and check for spelling errors/typos? Absolutely. Are you going to take out words like “Dang” (or worse)? Honestly, it depends on your audience. Most people do tone that kind of thing down, but they still write like they talk in that they speak authentically, from the heart, rather than “properly”.

    As far as starting off with “Hi, here’s what’s happening to me today”, I also think that’s fine if it fits the tone and intent of the piece. Do I want to see that at the beginning of a serious how-to post? Probably not. Can a Mom blogger talking to other Moms about a trip to the zoo write like that? Sure, why not? Creativity is a good thing. Again, what is acceptable depends a lot on who is reading.

    There is certainly no shortage of advice out there and all of it can be used either correctly/well or misconstrued. This is probably just one of those that for some needs a little more explanation to keep it in the “correctly” column.

  6. I agree with Daphne. I don’t think this ‘write like you speak’ advice is meant to be taken literally. It is advised so people don’t think that they are supposed to have a literary or, poetic an academic voice if they want to write. Conversational style of writing is perfectly acceptable and often prefered when writing for the web. It becomes an issue of writing = effective communication.

    I go by ‘Write like you speak – only better’ – that takes care of the revision part. Thanks for your article. :)

    Marya

  7. Thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU! This article is such a relief. You see, it has been almost physically painful trying to deconstruct my writing style over the last few years. People in my work-place told me my writing was too.. well…obtuse. I knew I had to adjust something because the first language of the people where I live is not English. I had long ago altered the way I speak English. My written communication wasn’t having the desired effect. I had to tailor my writing as well.

    But you are quite right. The two CAN be the same, but only if they both communicate clearly and successfully. What blogging has done for me is to give me a wider audience. I’m learning to write copy that doesn’t require using words and phrases suitable for people who speak English almost as a second language. As such, it CANNOT be the same as how I’ve learned to speak in this part of the world.

    By the way, a lot of people DO take the “write like you speak” advice quite literally. That’s exactly what quite a few bloggers out there do.

  8. Hi Taylor, Just wondering, many people suggest using a voice activated software program for speeding up writing posts. (Hope I said that right.) What do you think?

  9. It’s interesting to see how this post was perceived by different commentators. My first impression, when I read it, was, “Absolutely, we should strive to write better and more effectively.”

    Taylor’s right – I see far too many people take the “write like you talk” advice literally. Too many people consider it a permission slip to lower standards, relax their language skills and basically wear their jeans with their undies hanging out.

    That may work with some audiences, but I think a good writer is someone who writes in a natural-sounding voice *without* compromising on writing skills.

  10. Great advice…and something that I’ve become very lax on as of late.

    Interestingly enough, I used to have people ridicule me because my speech was normally tailored and thought out.

    We also need to be aware of our intention when we speak. For instance, deliberately using huge words to make ourselves seem intelligent is more annoying than useful. As the posts states, choose your words wisely…both in speech and in written form.

  11. Terry Murphy says:

    Like most who follow this site, I try to be quite careful about the words I use. I think this is a really important post, but not for the obvious reason.

    I apply the same rigour to speech as to writing. Obviously speech is a little more freeform, but I am convinced that weighing words to assess whether others will get the meaning you intended is just as important in speech as it is in writing. Effective communication is founded in shared understanding, whether in speech or in writing.

  12. Whether we talk well enough or don’t talk well enough,whether we do right less that we talk,it is in great concern to share what I have in my mind. Since what we do right comes from our mind, whether the length looks wide or less , the idea when it comes to right it, we must consider the white paper space for those in print, but when it comes to post space matter too.

    We must produce something accurate ,fair and concise for people to enjoy your piece of article.

    Ntarugera François
    .

  13. I was so thrilled to see this post! The advice “write like you talk” has always annoyed me. I’m always amazed by the number of poorly written emails I see on a daily basis. This is certainly not to say that I’m an expert communicator by any means, but I’m always conscious of how my tone will come across to the recipient. As a small business owner and event coordinator, effective verbal and written communication is essential!

  14. Sorry, but I still think “write the way you speak” is good advice.

    What we might need to add is something like “when writing your first draft”.

    Whenever I dished out this advice, I never suggested they write down what they say word-for-word. Hell, if that was the case I’d give them a copy of Dragon Dictation and tell them to knock themselves out. (I’d even supply the piece of two-by-four.)

    But believe me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to bang into shape than stuff written by people who ate their thesaurus for breakfast. (As someone once joked, “I could eat a bowl of Alphabites and crap a better essay”.)

    Telling people to write the way they speak takes the pressure off. They realise they don’t have to use big words and long sentences. They can get off the damn podium and talk to their audience rather than preaching at them. (I wrote a piece last year that explains this little theory of mine: http://billharper.me/2010/yodas-guide-to-writing)

    And that will (hopefully) lead to better copy.

    Bill.

  15. No emoticons? Ouch. I’ve come to rely on emoticons when posting to the forums for my various classes and coaching groups. For some groups, they constitute a visual language. I think that’s legitimate–especially in a closed circle of people who know each other well–but I also recognize in myself signs of incipient laziness.

    Again, ouch. Thank you for the wake-up call.

  16. Friends that know me on a personal level often say they can’t believe I wrote blog posts they’ve read. Too me, that’s a compliment.

  17. This article really made me think – I remember some praise a teacher gave me back in highschool: “you write like you talk which, in your case, is a good thing.”

    But it wasn’t until I read this post that I finally clicked – not everyone’s speech works as well on paper. So I think you’re spot on with the amendment “if you can speak persuasively, eloquently, and clearly.”

    Now if only there was a polite way to tell people that they don’t speak well . . .

  18. Early Conner says:

    Good day,
    Your post reminded me of all the books, short stories, films and TV series that I am drawn to. The ones that are full of conversations that you can actually imagine real people having… if the world were around 27% smarter. (Random percentage, I know, but it sounded about right.)
    Thank you for the excellent advice.

    Early Bird

  19. I agree with Marya: Write like you talk–only better. So much so that I wrote a book with that title. Talking bonds us with other people. Writing adds thinking. To combine the best of talking and writing, you need to (1) think about who you want to connect with, what you want to say and how to best say structure it (2) write like you talk and (3) make it better by tightening and adding some magic.

  20. Interesting post..:) the first half of your prose sounded a bit prejudiced as you admitted later..the second half was the real thing that i was looking for..anyway,an insightful post..:)

  21. I agree with you, and tweeted the link!

    I think “write like you talk” is good advice for someone who wants to try his or her hand at writing and needs encouragement to hammer out a first draft. Anything published (aside from personal blog posts, which I consider to be more like journal entries than published work) should sound more polished than casual conversation, in my opinion.

    Thanks for the inspiration! :)

    • I’d be interested to know what you mean by “polished”, Missy.

      For most of the writing I saw at The Day Job, “polished” equated to “dry, formal and boring”.

      Here’s how I think about it: In an ideal world, where we could be in a billion places at once, have all the time in the world and never run out of energy, we wouldn’t need copy at all. We’d sit down with each oerson and talk about what they want and what I can do for them. Unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that, and so we need the copy to speak for us instead.

      But why should the copy sound any different to a face-to-face conversation? If it’s going to do the bidding for you, then it should sound as much like you as possible. After all, that’s who the people are looking at hiring–you, not some carbon-copy drone.

      Sure, it should be nice and tight so you’re not wasting their time. But don’t edit all the personality and life out of your copy. It’s probably what makes you stand out in the first place.

      Bill.

  22. Thanks, great article. Think I need to go re-write everything to exclude emoticons, I use them… quite. often.

  23. Matthew J. Garcia says:

    I found this article to be very helpful. Almost every site that you browse about writing effectively for your readers, talks about writing like you talk, and if you can’t write, say what you want to write out loud. Well, if your not very good at translating your words, the idea of saying your sentences out loud is not a very good idea.

    Just as Christopher Hitchens mentions, learning how to communicate effectively is the key to writing.

    Great article. This article just answered my question of how should I write my blog post.

    Matthew

  24. Thanks for this post Taylor – great advice with a lot of interesting comments!

  25. The secret to writing effectively (to any audience) has never been ‘write like you talk’ – but rather to ‘write like your audience thinks.’

  26. I’ve always taken “write like you talk” as a call to writing with a clear voice. I think it’s important to write with a clear voice. A clear voice drives comprehension. It is the vehicle of communication.

    Since I am in video, even more so. I write out what I say in my videos, just so I avoid all the “um’s and such. I also write out a script to make sure my “voice” on video is consistent with my written “voice”.

    In the end, it’s about making sure our voice is clear and understandable, isn’t it?

  27. Write the way your character speaks.

    This works whether your story is first person narration. It also works if you want to create the world of your story that becomes real for readers (and you).

    Writing the way your charaters speaks creates the world your characters inhabit. It also establishes genre.

    First person narration is often suggested to new writers as a way to “get writing”, or to “learn how to write”. In many ways this advice to new writers is wrong because first person narration is not easy. It is certainly not simplistic, as some writing snobs suggest.

    Writing the way your narrator speaks (or main character) gives colour to your palette. You can use your narrator to describe scene and action, build their character and comment on what’s happening. Of course, nothing happens that the narrator doesn’t know about.

    Writing using characters voices works too because it lets you set the scene in which your story takes place.

    Find your character’s voice and you’ll find your own voice – and the story. Some times this means taking time to get to know your character. Some times, their voice comes to you alone. Their baggage follows on as they reveal themselves to you.

    Getting to know your character like this can be interesting. Let them talk to you about their life and the world they inhabit. You may yourself becoming something of a shrink, but hey! why not?

    You could find getting to know your character/s this way recharges your creativity and puts life back into a project that may have slumped and, listening to your character/s can be enlightening.

  28. I’m one that always writes how I talk. Now obviously I’m not going to write every single ums, and you knows and all that stuff. I will edit that part out. I just believe that you should put your own twist on things.

    For example. When I write, I write as if to one person, (my ideal reader), and I write as if I’m talking to that person in person. I write as if I was writing to a friend. Makes it for a more personal type of vibe ya know.

    I wouldn’t be a perfect grammar with a friend. Would come out fake. People can see right through the fakeness. If you’re all proper, then it would show in your writing.

    If you would to ever meet me in person, and are one of my readers, you would have no doubt that it’s me because of the way I write and talk. And yes, when in person you’ll hear a bit more of the roughness, but that goes with anything that it’s not scripted or prepared.

    There is a way to write like you talk without sounding like an idiot. Just write, write, and write some more. With practice you’ll get better. Eventually you’ll get a rhythm of how you write and it’ll become second nature.

    It’s easier to write how you talk rather than learning all the proper stuff. To me it’s more personal and you’ll end up with a more loyal fanbase.

    I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, or maybe I just don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

    Either way, very good topic and an excellent subject line, makes for a very engaging article. 2 thumbs up…

    Oh btw, this would be a great debate for a podcast or something ;-)

    peace,
    Joey

  29. Good article.

    Ever since I’ve heard that phrase, “You Should Never Write Like You Talk” it always bugged me. Coming from a family of writers, and I being in the film industry always knew what it truly was warning writers to avoid. So what does it really mean when one tells you to write as your speak? That advice is telling you to write from your heart, and instincts as well. Just as a well spoken person can do, those that write from their heart truly speak the language of writing that literally in written words, jumps off the pages to the reader.

    Mikos

  30. Taylor, I write the way I talk. Honest to God I do. Ask anyone…
    and it’s working wonders for me. To hell with writing rules man. There are enough badly written books out there to tell you that you can get away with almost anything these days. Rules are made to be broken. And know this, rules are one person’s preferences pressed on to others to be accepted as something everybody should follow.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] (var i=0; iI was at MenWithPens reading a blog post by Taylor Lindstrom about how bad it is to write like you talk and why you shouldn’t do it. The writer has a very strong opinion, I like that, even [...]

  2. [...] like you speak’. Back in December, Taylor Lindstrom of ‘Men With Pens’ said it was the ‘worst piece of writing advice he’d ever heard’. People have been arguing it one way or the other ever since. It seems to us that most of the [...]

  3. [...] Men With Pens published Why You Should Never Write Like You Talk and I thought: Yes, [...]

  4. […] maar beter ook. Misschien schrijf ik zoals ik zou willen praten. Tot ik laatst onderstaande zinnen las en me realiseerde die schrijftip niet het echte probleem […]

  5. […] If you pop the phrase “write the way you talk” into Google, you’ll find yourself on a battlefield. Half of the results are articles offering that exact advice, while the other half have titles like Why You Should Never Write Like You Talk. […]

Leave a Comment

*