Darwin wants you to write like you speak

We’re always telling people to write more like you speak. Search for the phrase on our blog and you’ll find plenty of entries (one of which Neil wrote just last week).

Most people accept it as a helpful bit of advice, but others rail against it. They worry it’ll make them sound too informal. Unprofessional. Flippant, even. This latest entry to our write like you speak anthology is my response to them.

Picture the scene: it’s 50,000BC. Ig and Ug are hunting deer, and Ug’s managed to disturb a pack of woolly mammoths. Which of these warnings should Ig try?

a. ‘Watch out!’
b. ‘It is recommended that you adopt a movement strategy given the proximity of that large elephantine animalian solution!’

If you answered a, congratulations. Ug will go on to live a happy life and bear many children.

If you answered b, let’s just say there’s a lot of skewering.

For the likes of Ig and Ug, spoken language was – among other things – a survival tool. It was the best way to get a thought into someone’s head. Since then it’s grown in tandem with human progress, and it’s been chipped and shaped and moulded to do its job efficiently, clearly, brilliantly.

It’s the most nuanced and natural form of communication we have. It comes with pronunciation, emphasis, rhythm, volume adjustment and variable pace. It comes with eye contact, so people can hear what you’re saying in the full context of who you are.

And then there’s writing. An artificial series of squiggles that only vaguely correspond to the thoughts in our heads. At most, it’s had 5,000 years to evolve. Spoken language, if you believe Noam Chomsky, has had about 100,000.

Yes, you can choose to write on a banana if you want to show you’re quirky. Or write with letters cut from different magazines if you want to show that you’re trying not to show anything at all.

But there’s nowhere near the same amount of context, of choice, of colour.

And that, in a nutshell, is why writing more like you speak isn’t flippant. It isn’t unprofessional. It’s just human nature.

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