Of course you should write like you speak
There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere the last few months about the advice ‘write 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 disagreements have come about because of a misunderstanding about what the advice is designed to help people with. Here’s why:
It’s largely advice about not putting on a ‘telephone voice’ when you write
The reason we say it is to stop people feeling like they need to adopt a formal, posh or ‘clever-sounding’ tone when they’re writing. For example, you wouldn’t say in a meeting ‘schedules shall be agreed upon prior to commencement of the project’. You’d say ‘we’ll agree the schedules before we start the project’. Yet lots of people tend to write the former, because they think it’s what ‘proper’ or ‘professional’ writing should sound like. Writing more like you speak is really about getting people to tune in to these sorts of differences.
It’s not about including all the habits of speech in your writing
When you speak you ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’, you don’t finish sentences, you digress, ramble, gesticulate for added effect. (Well okay, I do.) Clearly, nobody’s saying you should do that in your writing. Some people caveat ‘write like you speak’ by saying ‘write like you speak – and then polish’. Or ‘write like you speak – but speak well’. I don’t like these sorts of caveats because ‘polishing’ your words and ‘speaking well’ can sometimes be misinterpreted as ‘poshing it up a bit’, which gets you back to the problem you started with. I prefer saying ‘remember, it’s write more like you speak, not literally as you speak’. The simple practical test is: read your writing out loud. Listen to your voice. Can you read it out in your natural speaking voice?
It’s not advice about how to structure your writing
One of the complaints against ‘write like you speak’ as advice is that it results in rambling, stream-of-consciousness pieces. Of course, you should structure your piece well. Start with your main point. Group your points into themes, and so on. (Though, funnily enough, there are times when we’re talking that we’re really good at instinctively structuring what we need to say – if you’ve only got 20 seconds to persuade someone of something, it’s astonishing how effortlessly you can hone in on what your main point is.)
And don’t forget: writing is only half the story
Actually writing the words down is only half the job. Write like you speak is a great start. But then edit, edit, edit.