Don’t Write How You Speak

“Write how you speak.” The advice is well intentioned. It’s meant to ease the fears that stop smart people from putting their words on paper. (Everybody can talk, right?) It’s meant to correct the tendency some people have of writing in a style they were taught to use for 11th grade English assignments.

The advice is not bad; it’s just misleading. To compose effective pieces, one must understand that written and spoken communications have different structures. What’s more, since increasing amounts of what is written today is stored or distributed digitally, there’s another reason to be more deliberate about structuring pieces: structure helps machines “read” your content so that it can be found by your target audiences.

When people suggest you write how you speak, they’re talking about style. They’re recommending that you match the register (how formal the language is) of your written communication with the way you would speak to the same audience, and that you match the tone (the attitude or mood you convey) with the message.

Writing a welcome letter to people who have registered for workshop, “Be A Clown: Improv for Executives”? The register should be informal; the tone should be friendly and humorous. Writing a demand letter to a customer who wrote a bad check? The register should be formal; the tone should be serious and matter-of-fact.

Style isn’t everything.

The enrollees of that improv class and the writers of that rubber check know they are reading a letter when they see the salutation, a typical feature of a letter’s structure.

Spoken communication happens in an interactive context. It capitalizes on body language, vocal inflection, and the physical environment. Written works, including prewritten speeches, trade those advantages for another one, something akin to a blueprint. When writing a piece, you rely on its structure (the organization of the ideas and information in relation to each other) to achieve the effects you want to have on people’s thinking and feeling.

• Journalists use the inverted pyramid to write basic news stories. The first paragraph includes all of the essential information, and the story trails through less and less important content as the paragraphs progress.
• Write fiction, and you will learn some version of a formula of Aristotle’s theory of plot or Fryetag’s pyramid. This structure promotes readers’ identification with the main character and immersion in the world and events of the story.
• High school students learn some version of the five-paragraph structure. That’s a way to organize a short piece to construct an argument.

These formats provide landmarks that hold — and direct — readers’ attention. Each one cues a particular state of mind and promises a specific kind of experience.

Neglect structure, and you confuse and annoy your audience.

  • The piece is vaguely interesting, but the reader can’t tell where it’s going until three or four paragraphs in.
  • The main point is buried.
  • The article isn’t wordy, exactly, but it goes on way too long.
  • A short piece uses several conflicting metaphors rather than a unifying one.
  • Instead of a satisfying wrap-up, the piece ends abruptly.
  • An instruction sheet or manual seems cluttered with unnecessary or distracting background information.

Each of these problems is a failure of structure. Most of them don’t pose a problem if you’re speaking to someone in person.

To be sure, great writers sometimes break structure deliberately, for effect. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, we think we are following the story of Marion, who’s stolen her boss’ money and gone on the lam. Thirty minutes into the action, she’s stabbed in the famous shower scene. Surprise!

In the digital realm there can be additional hiccups, like:

  • An excerpt on a content aggregator misrepresents the post to which it clicks through. (The lack of structure means the content hasn’t been marked up properly.)
  • The navigation on a Web site confuses you. The flow between linked pages doesn’t make sense. (No big picture gives order to the ideas.)

Writing how you speak is a great way to get a first draft, but the next step isn’t “polishing.” When you edit your first draft, you stop being a conversation partner and start being a maker.

Try to imagine the train of thought your readers will need to take if they are to respond the way you want them to. Imagine also their emotional reactions. Then lay the track.

Are you reporting, teaching, entertaining, convincing? Arrange your content to support the goal.

Don’t forget the concern of how people will consume the piece: From their phone while on the commuter bus, from their desktop while at work, from a bound book while sitting in a favorite reading chair, or from loose sheets of paper propped up next to a machine they’re trying to fix?

Don’t write how you speak; there’s nobody listening. Give people a route to follow.