Write How You Write, Not How You Speak

By Mark Nichol

Recently, I wrote about word patronage, the often-unnecessary inclusion of self-referential expressions as “as you will” and “so to speak” in one’s writing. This post expands on that one to recommend that you inspect your writing for anything that smacks of spoken English.

If you’ve ever seen a transcript of an extended discourse — a written record of someone’s comments, rather than the prepared script for a speech — you’ll understand how widely spoken and written English can diverge.

Spontaneous speech, at least, is riddled with qualifications and equivocations. It’s easy enough to dispose of “um”s and “uh”s, “well”s and “you know”s when converting a transcript to an essay, but writers should purge their prose of other utterances, words, and phrases as well that add a lot to a word count but little to a description or an argument. (See this post, for instance, for a list of adjectival intensifiers and their adverbial forms to avoid.)

In addition, omit hedging phrases such as “as I see it,” “from my point of view,” “in my opinion,” and “it seems to me.” Search and destroy such pompous filler as “be that as it may” or “other things being equal.” These are all understandable (though not necessarily forgivable) indulgences in spoken English, whether impromptu or rehearsed — at best, they’re nearly meaningless phrases one tosses off while thinking of what to say next, and at worst, they clutter a speech, distracting and discouraging listeners. But readers expect your prose to be direct and dynamic, and there’s no place for such self-gratification in written form.

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14 Responses to “Write How You Write, Not How You Speak”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Great article, I keep forgetting to stop hedging in my articles. I’ll have to take a look at this and make sure it is absent in my next one. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Jackie Baisa

    There are two things I’d have omitted in this post, for the very same reason. 😉 I do agree with you, although I think the title is slightly misleading. When I tell people who are searching for their written voice to start by writing like they speak, I’m telling them to write in the voice they would use to verbally tell a story. I often (but not always) write with colloquialisms and vulgarity, just like I use in person. It’s simply my voice, and I think it makes for interesting reading to switch shit up, rather than only penning in perfectly prosed Standard American English.

    Additionally, you should add the disclaimer that when writing in a dialect (Southern, Midwest, Jersey dialects), it’s absolutely crucial to use spoken diction, “um”s and “y’all”s and “yo, ‘sup”s and all.

    Just my two cents! 🙂

  • Rob Kennedy

    How does anyone, get to be telling people things like this? It sounds like something you’ve just thought up.

    I want to hear the voice of people. I want to know their vernacular. I want to be able to relate to their unique words and saying. I can’t do this if we all write the same.

    I closely follow this fantastic website and its useful daily emails. But When I read this I found it hard to believe.

    Write how you speak. I want to listen to you and your real voice.

  • Widdershins

    I agree with you about getting rid of the ‘um’s’ etc, but what the written word is being used for determines how it ‘reads’. I write differently when I’m blogging, writing notes to friends, and composing a speech, or working on my novel.

    It is very hard to get a sense of the person in a written conversation, without being able to see their body language. Such ‘utterances, words, and phrases’ help to give an otherwise two dimensional communication a little colour and depth.

  • Mark Nichol

    I should have made a distinction in this post: I’m referring to more formal registers of nonfiction — business writing, scholarly writing, and so on. Of course there are many exceptions; search for the word formal on this site, and you’ll find many other useful articles on the subject of degree of formality in writing.

  • Heather

    You know, while I normally love this blog, I find this extremely unhelpful. You didn’t really give any reasoning as to WHY we shouldn’t include those words, thus it sounds more like an opinion piece, and we all know that everyone’s opinion is different…

    I do agree with the comments that say we should write how we speak. It’s our voice. Yes, polished pieces for some businesses should be written differently than our blogs, books and e-mails. But the post reads like no one should ever use those in writing, and I simply disagree.

    None of my readers expect me to be a robot. If they did, I would simply look for new readers, because quite frankly I’m not.

  • J. Dunn

    I felt like this post was really half-assed. It was short, doesn’t really talk about what type of writing you’re referring to, and seemed to read more like a rant than an actual “lesson” of any kind.

    There are dozens and dozens of types of writing. Fiction, non-fiction, business, blogging, essays, personal correspondence, etc. I actually prefer reading someone who writes like a real person in 75% of those cases. I do agree that we could eliminate a lot of extraneous phrases in technical and business writing, as well as in the news, but otherwise, those phrases often serve to set a tone and describe the writer. Also, without any buffer phrases at all, most writing appears stilted and brash. Just my personal opinion on the matter…

  • Ada

    I think sometimes we need to write something close to our real life. And there need some spoken english let us to feel comfortable.

  • Mark Nichol

    J. Dunn:

    See my comment, please.

  • Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

    Several of the comments spoke of a desire to write as one speaks, because that is what they wanted to read. I agree, that a writer should include them, if that is the voice they want to have.

    Of course, I won’t read it.

    Or at least, I won’t continue to read it once I’ve come across the first, “Hey, how was the game last night?” Cindy asked with a starry look in her eyes.

    Her dreamy quarterback answered, “You know, uhm, we played good, and uhm, you know, the offensive line had my back. I have to give credit, you know, to the other team, they were, uhm, …good. I threw for, uhm, three touchdowns, you know. I like your sweater.”

    Cindy swooned.

    Good post, I uhm, you know, enjoyed it.

  • Naomi Hamm

    The less insignaficant words are always the best. Furthermore as you may go along reading them you will find them unnecessary and ambling. Only impactual words may suffice the best.

    I have to add that I thoroughly disagree with Heather. These are things we always wind up overlooking anyway.

  • Lena

    I wouldn’t completely agree, I think the power of Colloquial English should not be underestimated, even in writing. Sometimes “it seems to me.”or “In my opinion” though do not convey anything new, add ‘affect’ to the writing.

  • Anita

    I can really only find one place where you’d want to strike such words from your writings, and that is when you’re ghost-writing and you have to stick to 800 words or less. It’s very easy to creep up over the 800-word limit and thus begins the hunt for things to cut. These types of phrases, which usually are employed to bring a casual familiarity to the post, are some of the first that can go. That being said, if they can be cut so easily, are they really necessary? Again, depends on the tone of the piece. I don’t think you can draw a hard and fast rule here.

  • Trish

    Great post! I enjoyed reading it very much. On the topic of writing how you speak; would anyone know about the phrase “at any rate” and where it came from or when/how it became a saying? It is used as a sort of subject changer or way to get back to the topic from a tangent, much like we say, “anyway” or “anyways” now (depending where we grew up). I have been searching for the answer to this for a while and so far no one has any idea. Thanks 🙂

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