Chris Blattman

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“Write like you speak”

Something comes over most people when they start writing. They write in a different language than they’d use if they were talking to a friend. The sentence structure and even the words are different. No one uses “pen” as a verb in spoken English. You’d feel like an idiot using “pen” instead of “write” in a conversation with a friend.

The last straw for me was a sentence I read a couple days ago:

The mercurial Spaniard himself declared: “After Altamira, all is decadence.”

It’s from Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain. I feel bad making an example of this book, because it’s no worse than lots of others. But just imagine calling Picasso “the mercurial Spaniard” when talking to a friend. Even one sentence of this would raise eyebrows in conversation. And yet people write whole books of it.

Ok, so written and spoken language are different. Does that make written language worse?

If you want people to read and understand what you write, yes.

A great post from Paul Graham. I will only add one qualification: Not if you talk like an undergraduate? With question marks at the end of all your statements?

That and other reminders come from Teddy Wayne and his attack on “NPR voice”, including… melodramatic pauses.

Meanwhile, see my previous posts on writing well here. It is a skill like any other: if you work at it you will get much better.

34 Responses

  1. There is no such thing as ‘like you speak’. Everyone controls different styles of language that are more or less appropriate in different contexts (registers) – we move between them all the time, usually without thinking about it much. You don’t speak to your boss the same way you speak to your child or your best friend or your pet. Written language can be in a very formal register or a less formal register, it depends on the reason for writing and the audience. Some of us speak in ways that might be seen as more formal (including things like relative clauses for instance), others less so. Correlated with things like education, SES, region, etc. But you shouldn’t try to write in ways that you cannot speak, that’s where people often have difficulty (see this all the time when grading papers, students trying to use words and structures they don’t know (to sound smarter perhaps?).

  2. I agree with the overall post but I don’t think Neil Oliver is a great example. Having seen his tv show and read some of his books (although not this one) I always hear the words in his distinctive voice.

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