When reading a professional author’s discussion thread, I noted that more than one person assumed the trick to creating a unique writer’s voice was “writing like you talk.” There is some truth to this if you are a good verbal storyteller. But many good writers are do not excel at public speaking.
Recently I was discussing a book written by a prominent newscaster, mimicking his unique conversational mannerisms. One of the people made an interesting observation. He said, “You can really hear him speaking as you read it, and that really slows you down.” Now, I prefer reading to listening for the very reason that I can read about three times faster than I can listen. This led me to consider the complications of writing like you speak.
Most people tend to be more dramatic and less accurate when speaking. This allows them to be heard over competing voices. Frequent repetition is used … frequently. People also fill their speech with meaningless phrases, such as “when you think about things,” because they are actually thinking about things, such as what to say next. One of the biggest drawbacks to writing this way is increased word count for the amount of content. This may be at the root of my friend’s perception “that really slows you down” when reading a book written in this manner.
Use of current catch phrases and regional interjections set the tone for the text, but often contribute little or nothing to the meaning. Don’t get me wrong; tone is necessary in writing. Much of how we interpret what people say is by listening to their tone of voice. Because there is no audible tone in writing it requires some unique phrases to achieve the same impact as vocal inflections.
A good verbal storyteller using lots of “colorful language” may be able to appeal to people in their region. Appealing to a larger crowd requires more. Write like you speak, with smatterings of colloquialisms, and you may be understood by your neighbor today. But remove the reader a few years, a few hundred miles, or a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, and suddenly it becomes hard work to read what you have written. If the content is not worth the effort, people stop reading.
Occasionally, I enjoy books by authors who write in the vernacular… in small doses. Mark Twain actually got his start as a lecturer, who made his living by talking. His novels were published as serial installments in magazines for a reason. Short passages in folksy language are interesting. However, I witnessed too many students dread the time they spent slogging through his imitation of Old English speech in The Prince and the Pauper. Even I eventually had to give up on his unabridged version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
So when you decide to write like you speak, recall when you sat in a conversation as the other person chattered on assuming word choice made them sound interesting. Remember all the meandering thoughts, unfinished sentences and repetition. Now, edit your work ruthlessly until it flows. The content should be what drives it. People pay attention when you speak because that is polite. But you’ll never know when they simply stopped reading.