Here’s a sketchy piece of writerly advice to navigate with care: “Write as you speak.”
At first listen, this sounds good, but it’s a plan that can go terribly awry. How so? For most of us, our natural way of speaking is rife with criminally bad grammar, clichés, and stopped and started thoughts. Honestly, when we’re speaking off-the-cuff, most of us sound like middle-school dropouts.
Here, for example, is a snippet of an actual conversation between two students:
Speaker 1: So you don’t need to go borrow equipment from anybody to . . . to do the feet? To do the hooves?
Speaker 2: Oh, we’re going to have to find somewhere, so yeah. Sup, Dana. Are you gonna do the feet today? I’m gonna wait till, like, early in the morning to do this, cuz, I mean, you get so tired. You just—It takes, well, it takes me longer than most people because, you know, I’m not strong, and I’m not as good as somebody that would do it all the time, you know, I mean, uh, I mean, you know, I trim horses and stuff like that, but I mean I’m not like, I’m not, ah, I don’t know how to say it.
Painful to read, isn’t it? But trust me, you sound like that, too. We all do. Those who don’t are as rare as two-dollar bills. Now, I’m pretty sure you can gather that the advice I quoted doesn’t mean you should pepper your writing with “uh” and “I mean,” but here are some warnings to keep in mind:
- Avoid paragraph-long sentences, particularly those in the stream-of-consciousness style. While the stream-of-consciousness method is brilliant when penned by a Faulkner or an Oates, for most of us, it results in an unreadable mess.
- Avoid sentences lacking verbs, even if for stylistic effect. I list this one because it has historically been a favorite trick of my very own. To my inner ear, it’s natural-sounding, but every single beta reader I’ve ever had has been puzzled by it.
- Likewise, avoid sentence fragments. This is another of our habitual spoken tendencies that only render your writing amateurish.
- Avoid colloquialisms. Example: Until very recently, experts considered the use of “hopefully” in place of “it is hoped” to be a barbarism. While we resort to “hopefully” in speech, it was hoped that we writers would not make the mistake in writing. Alas, I’m afraid we let the grammar experts down, and it is now acceptable. Additionally, avoid “like” when you mean “as if,” “where” when you mean “at which,” and “people” when you mean “others” (or what have you).
- Avoid trailing sentences (denoted by an ellipsis). As in the conversation transcribed above, our spoken sentences tend to trail off in a cloud of lily-livered uncertainty. Please don’t force your poor characters to sound so confused and unsure.
- Avoid regionalisms unless you are specifically a regional writer. This means that you shouldn’t refer to turning the lights of as “cutting” the lights off, nor should you refer to “hitting” or “mashing” buttons when you mean pressing. Not sure what your regionalisms are? Welcome to the wonderful world of Wikipedia.
Learning the point at which to draw the line between writing that sounds natural and writing that’s gone native requires a vigilant word-for-word scrutiny of your work in the editing stage – not for the whole picture, and definitely not as an exercise in relishing your own genius. I can’t promise your spoken English will improve, but your writing definitely will.