Myth Busting “Write as You Talk” OR How to Write Conversationally

I Can Think Writing

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My IT husband wanted to know what I knew about writing. We talked quite a while. I told him that writing is written conversation about organized thinking.

As he does often, IT man gave his response in quotable form.

I can think writing, but I don’t know how to write it.

I could have answered, “Write as you talk.” It’s well known advice, but talking isn’t at all like writing. Really. That is a myth and I’m myth busting it now. So what does it mean to write as you talk?

Why Talking Isn’t Like Writing

Talking is a road trip with a loose destination. We don’t plan many conversations. We start them and see how they happen. Rarely does a great conversation stay on one interstate highway. Conversations are filled with sidetrips, tangents, and interruptions.

    Ideas flow freely and change often in conversation. Sometimes points never get fully discussed or completed. Sometimes we lose track of what we’re saying. Sometimes a new idea becomes more interesting, and we change the conversation to go there instead.

    Talking is almost defined by feedback. The people we talk to, talk back, while we’re still talking. They respond to what we’re saying. They let us know when our message isn’t clear, when our sentences have rambled into a forest, when our ideas have gone off on a tangent.

    If our message comes out incorrectly, we merely restate it and bring the listener back to the correct information.

    Conversation has lulls and uhs and ums. Conversation has acceptable errors in usage that wouldn’t be acceptable in writing.

    Conversation is like dancing. It’s filled with give and take. People can follow conversation because they are part of it when it is happening.

    Conversation is many things. Organized is not one of them.

What Write as You Talk Really Means

Writing is a planned road trip with a purpose to share information, to entertain, to teach or persuade, or tell a story. Write as you talk really means have a conversational writing voice. If you start as you talk, take a few minutes to make it work for readers. Here’s how to do that.

    Write with a plan for what you want to talk about OR talk about what you want and then organize it. An outline is good — main ideas and details that tell more about them. Readers nead a clearer path than the people you talk to.

    Add more detail than you would when you talk. Readers don’t have a chance to ask you for clarification or for something that they might be missing.

    Take out tangents and unrelated information. Readers think what you write is about the subject you’ve chosen. If you do write a tangent, let them know that you’re leaving your writing plan for side trip.

    Look through what you wrote for ambiguous words, slang, and phrases only you would know. Readers can’t stop in the middle to ask what you mean by them.

    The words as print issues are obvious. No lectures from this writer who is far from perfect at them.

    Read your writing aloud and listen to the words. Though it seems counterintuitive, that is one way to get from the writer’s role into the reader’s role quickly, by changing which of the five senses you use. Listen to the words as if someone you don’t know is talking to you. Does the writer sound intelligent? Do the words make sentence? Does any part leave you confused?

The goal is a conversational voice with the organization a reader can follow, because on this road trip the reader is in another car not the same car as yours. That’s why writing needs more structure than conversation does. We can’t have readers getting lost all over the Internet!

What can you add to help me bust the “write as you talk” myth?

–ME “Liz” Strauss
If you think Liz can help with a problem you’re having with your writing, check out the Work with Liz!! page in the sidebar.

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  1. says

    In a conversation, the speaker can sometimes convey meaning through the tone and delivery.

    Written text obviously doesn’t enjoy such an advantage. Which is why I agree that with well written text, there’ll be no question about what it’s trying to say. Innuendos and double-meanings are still possible, but only when the context is established beforehand. :)

  2. says

    Hi Rico,
    Yes, that’s one I missed. Intonation and body language can add so much contesxt to a conversation that just won’t be there when the words stand alone.

    Thanks for bringing this one to the light. It’s an important one to remember. Many court transcipts and contracts have proven that words alone can be awfully ambiguous.

  3. says

    I’ve had several people say to me, “I love your blog but I have no idea what it’s about. I don’t know who Imus is.” So I struggle with trying to attract readers who may not be familiar with the subject. Or should I just concentrate on my core audience of readers who are familiar with the subject? What made me think about this was your comment about “ambiguous words, slang, and phrases only you would know.”

    I am using some new software from Microsoft to write my blog. Last night I downloaded Windows Live Writer (beta) and I am very impressed. It works flawlessly with WordPress and has many features missing from the default WordPress writer. It allows you to publish directly to your blog. The only problem I found is it doesn’t work with my Flickr plugin to insert photo’s from Flicker. But I don’t use that many photo’s anyway and when I do I can just use the default writer.

    I have also started using a plugin that inserts mp3 audio into my posts. For my type of blog this will come in very handy.

    Thanks for the great post Liz.

  4. says

    Big Roy,
    Maybe you can write a page for your blog about Imus and who the characters on his show are. That would give your blog context and texture and let readers who don’t know in on the “secret.”

    Add photos and more explanation in each post would help too. But I think what you’re doing by way of adding YOU is the best of all!

  5. says

    Wow great idea Liz, I had never thought of that. There are already some biography pages on MSNBC and WFAN so I’ll have to be careful not to copy them. But this will be a good project to work on.

    Thank You

  6. says

    If I can just throw a kind of tangent here, what helps me reinforce my own writing is the habit I have of keeping a diary.

    I’ve always enjoyed writing, and sometimes writing my banal thoughts about what’s going on around me helps me sort out my mind. But more apropos to this conversation is that my diarizing, over time, has reinforced my verbal skills since, the more I write the more I think about the way I talk.

    That the diary writing also helps polish my written communications should go without saying.

  7. says

    Thanks Big Roy, I also love your theme. Looks like we both love clean white spaces. :) What theme did you use, if I may ask?

    Here’s a suggestion: write an intro page introducing the Imus Show to new readers. I’m honestly still unsure of what the show is about: it’s a morning opinion show right? Sorry for the stupid question.

  8. says

    Rico the theme is called Pressrow and you can find it here . The creator actually provides some support when he gets a chance.

    Yes it’s a radio talk show syndicated all over the country and appears on MSNBC. It deals mostly with politics, and books. The show has evolved over the years from a “shock jock” show to more mainstream. Most of his guests are politicians, pundits/journalists, and authors. It’s sort of like Stern you either hate him or love him.

    I probably will go with some type of page to give some background on the show. The show has millions of listeners and if I can just get a fraction of those I would be happy. But it would be nice to hold on to the people who stumble to the site.

    I think Liz is going to suggest we get a hotel room if we continue this personal conversation.

  9. says

    Hi Big Roy,
    Glad to help with that Imus page idea. Sorry I had to leave there for a while. I had an appt.

    You ever need to worry about continuing a conversation while I’m not here. I leave the keys in your care. I think you take good care of the place while I’m gone.

  10. says

    Hi Samuel John Klein,
    Good to see you back again!
    A diary is a great idea — like you said, not just for keeping track of what has happened and capturing ideas, but also for helping to verbalize and write about them.

    The very act of going back to something that was written earlier gives perspective of a reader, because it forces us to fill in the details that we didn’t write down at the time we made the diary entry.

    Thanks for adding that insight, Samuel.
    It’s a great point to remember.

  11. says

    this post makes some really good points (as do some of the comments). i’ve always thought of the “write as you talk” advice as more of an advnaced tip than something that everyone should try.

    let’s face it, if you don’t have a certain level of skill in expressing yourself via the written word (skill which is usually developed by writing in situations that demand non-talk-like writing), then you won’t be able to convey your voice accurately.

    besiedes that, much of our spoken communication is subject to iteration – it’s purposefully redundant, because nobody likes long silences in conversation. if i’m writing something that i feel is thought-provoking, i have to consciously build those silences in to each paragraph.

  12. says

    Hi Andy,
    Thank you for this comment.
    Your last point is particularly fascinating to me. I’ve never quite heard stated that way before. I do something like that, but I’ve never until now actually realized it, let alone verbalized.

    Thank you for teaching me something about my own writing.

    I hope you’ll do more of that. 😛 It’ such fun to learn.

  13. says

    cool. i feel special now, but it’s not my idea.

    i had a really good prof for some technical writing courses in uni who convinced me that instructive prose could be just as artistic as poetry. my execution still leaves a lot to be desired, but i’ve been an avid fan of good writing for some time now. writing online has really been a wonderful practice for me. i feel i’m becoming a better communicator and teacher with almost every post.

    i’ve learned a good deal from your site too, and it is fun. i’m still digesting a lot of this stuff, but it is helping.

  14. says

    I see this flip side of this, but it’s related. I just edited a book “written” by a professional speaker who actually dictated his text onto an audio CD. It sounded like a phenomenal speech. I had it transcribed, then edited it. It needed a ton of work. I fixed sentence fragments, eliminated repetition, deciphered meanings, navigated abrupt topic shifts, changed the order of sections, added subheads, etc. As someone else pointed out, in writing, you lose all your non-verbal communication so you have to be very clear and organized in your writing. A brief outline helps and edit, edit, edit, let it sit for a while, and edit some more. That will help you decide if your tone is conversational enough without losing your readers.

  15. says

    Thanks Andy,
    for your second comment. A technical writer? Yeah, I think that technical writing can be like poetry. There is an art to it. It’s wonderful to find a guy who understands that it’s all about knowing the audience and communicating, rather than just talking specifications. :)

    Don’t let me mess with your digestion. :)

  16. says

    Welcome. Thank you for that exact comment. I was thinking of what you’re talking about when I wrote this post this morning.

    I did the same thing for a guy who had some audio tapes that needed transcribing. Oh me, oh my, I’m sure they worked when he was in the room, but with him there the prose was redundant, and it sounded like he looked down on his audience.

    i, too, added subheads and some organization and took out quite a few slang statments. He seemed to like the final result. (I know I did.)

    Writing is not the same as talking. :)

    Thanks, Lauren, for bringing this up. It’s what inspired this post. :)

  17. says

    To me, the important thing about “write like you talk” is about the words and phrases you choose. It seems like when some people write–people you have no problem chatting with in ordinary English–something alien takes over their brains (via mind control beams broadcast by Blancmanges from the planet Skyron in the Galaxy of Andromeda, in case you were wondering) and they begin to spew out passive voice bullshit liberally larded with nominalizations, buzz words, jargon, and obfuscation. Oh, the humanity!

    Obviously, leave out all the “ums” and “you knows,” organize what you’re trying to say, and polish things up before sending them off. But for the love of all that’s good and decent in this world, make your writing sound as if a living, breathing human being spoke them.

  18. says

    Hi Roy,

    Like my IT husband, you are quotable,
    But for the love of all that’s good and decent in this world, make your writing sound as if a living, breathing human being spoke them.

    Well said. :)

    After years in editing, i know that some people think that doing that is enough. You know that it’s not. But not doing it is not doing anything.

  19. says

    Hi, Liz! Interesting entry you have here. When I read your title, I smiled, because I remember my former boss. He would often tell us to write as we talk and he meant exactly the way you knew it—it means basically to assume a conversational voice. Let me add, too, that just like a conversation you’re writing must be engaging, as if you were right there in front of your readers making gestures, using voice intonations. In other words, write animatedly, use words and expressions that help the readers form a mental picture of what you’re saying.

  20. says

    Hi Meikah David,
    Yes, indeed a conversational voice carries life a vibrancy between the lines. Folks often say, “I can hear you and see you.” after they’ve read something well written. You add the qualities of great descriptions and lively strong verbs to the mix and the writing does become something remarkably lifelike. It takes on the presence of the writer, particularly to those who have heard him or her speak.

    When in reality, it’s magic because the two are nothing alike. :)

    Thank you for adding this. You describe it so well. I have those mental pictures you speak of in my head this morning. :)

  21. says

    Get a load of this one then: I try to bring European business people to use English in presentations (which are painstakingly prepared in writing) and make it sound like conversation. They all are non native English speakers and the majority of the audiences are too. The result is enthousiastic but traditionally wooden with a lot of stress related rigidity. However, all see a progression as they learn to improvise and converse with the audience as opposed to talking as if they were reading from cue cards.

  22. says

    Hi Timothy
    Wow! That sounds like an ESL lesson at the professional level. I can imagine a bit of it. I recently edited at book for MIT that was written by four authors — one from each of these countries: US, UK, Sweden, Denmark. It was an Engineering text on top of that. The challenge of bringing it to one comprehensible voice was fun and frustrating at the same time. Some sentences were perfect loops and some words were so ambiguous I couldn’t fix the sentence without several phone calls.

  23. Lynque says

    Two points. One, the ear reads better than the eye, and the effect of reading aloud–exactly what is written–is self-evident: one is closest to hearing oneself as others do. Errors and ambiguities of meaning, virtually expose themselves.

    Two, to “see ‘write like you talk’,” pick up a print copy of “Forrest Gump.” The author’s presentation explains everything.

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