Write like you speak is one of the most foundational component of engaging nonfiction writing. For many emerging writers, though, this is a challenge.
When readers talk about a writer’s “voice,” they’re talking about a host of things: syntax, word choice, metaphors, perspective, sentence structure, pacing, tone, themes and motifs. Finding your authentic voice as a writer takes time and experience; it doesn’t just appear on the page right away.
Fiction writers can create a voice, or play with different voices, but as a nonfiction writer, your writing should sound like you. Your vocabulary, your cadence, your syntax, your dialect. Your verbal idiosyncrasies. Friends and colleagues should be able to hear your voice in their heads as they read. Communication is a relationship, and to develop an authentic relationship with your reader, your writing—like your speech—should convey not only your perspective, but also a bit of your personality.
For many people who aren’t professional writers, though, this is a huge struggle. They may be eloquent, authoritative and passionate verbally, yet when they try to capture their voice in writing, they come across as stilted and awkward. That’s okay. Writing and speaking are different skills, and everyone who has ever set pen to paper has had to navigate that difference.
Part of the challenge is that, when we move communication to the page, a whole bunch of contextual signals are lost.
Writing vs. Talking
The speaking voice carries thousands of pieces of information that aren’t available to people reading the written word. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, even the verbal pacing of a sentence, or how you draw out vowels in the middle of a given word—all give clues about a speaker’s intent, personality and perspective. None of those are visible on the page. Instead, in writing, readers subconsciously get a sense of who you are, from dozens of verbal microexpressions.
Some very down-to-earth people can come across as “woo” in writing, simply because the fullness of their embodied voice doesn’t carry through to paper. Others, usually academics and researchers, can come across as obtuse, inaccessible and/or dry—even if their speaking voice is quite personable.
There are thousands of exceptional public speakers out there whose message falls flat once it’s committed to the page. This isn’t a flaw; it’s just a difference: speech is their primary communication modality. Speaking and writing involve different parts of the brain (as do processing speech and the written word); whichever you’ve spent more time developing is going to be the stronger neural pathway. In addition, many of us default strongly one way or another (it’s unlikely I’ll ever be as fluent verbally as I am in writing).
Each of us has a unique perspective and a natural verbal style with which we communicate that perspective. We have a cadence and vocabulary we’re comfortable with, elements that are influenced by background, education, regional dialect, passions, spiritual perspective, social influences and personality. We have a unique syntax, a way of seeing and structuring things—and communicating them.
Most of us, when we speak, don’t stop to think about each word as it comes out of our mouth, yet often people will try to write that way—one word after another wrenched from the brain. Which is pretty much a recipe for bad writing, not to mention an excruciating process.
How to Write Like You Speak
One effective technique for writers who struggle to articulate themselves on the page is to use either a digital voice recorder or voice transcription software like DragonSpeak. I’m a fan of the former, because I find it difficult to be creative while sitting in front of a screen. You can carry a digital recorder with you (or use the voice memo function on your phone), and when inspiration hits, just press Record and say what you’re thinking. Imagine you’re explaining the idea to a friend. Then later, transcribe what you’ve said, and voilà! You have a rough draft, or at least an outline. (Plenty of experienced writers use this technique, too, because they speak faster than they can type, and/or they’re not always in a location where they can whip out a laptop and write down a draft.)
Another approach is to write first, then read your drafts out loud. You can do this alone or with someone else. Where do you stumble? What sounds awkward to your ear? By listening to your words, you can hear which sections need refinement. As you become more practiced at reading your work out loud, you’ll start to understand intuitively what types of adjustments are called for. Do you have a tendency to write sentences that run on for half a page? Or simple sentences that, strung together, sound staccato? Do you switch tense mid-sentence from past to future to present? You’ll discover where your written voice differs from your spoken voice, and with practice (and maybe some coaching), the two will start to move together into a unified voice.
An easy exercise to get into this flow is to write a letter (i.e., a really long email) to someone you care about, who doesn’t know the ins and outs of your subject.
If you’re having trouble sounding like yourself, first identify why. Here are some of the top reasons writers’ written ‘voices’ sound stilted:
- Are you self-critiquing as you write? This hinders anyone, and learning how to effectively use your inner critic – and how to keep him away – is an essential part of learning to write.
- Are you trying to sound like someone other than your authentic self? More authoritative on a given subject? More articulate? Funnier? More educated? More “spiritual”? Younger? Don’t do this. If you’re trying to create a written persona (and you’re not intentionally doing it as a creative writing exercise), readers will pick up on the split right away, and it will break the bond between you and your and reader. Authenticity is the key to establishing a relationship of trust.
- Are you expecting it to be perfect on the first draft? That’s not a realistic expectation. The first draft is just to get everything that’s in your head onto the page. In my experience, 85% of writing is revision. So give yourself permission to write utter and total crap on that first draft.
- Are you trying too hard? If you’re spending hours and hours on the computer, and it’s just not working, give yourself a break. Get up, go for a walk, take a nap or a bath, play with the puppy—allow your subconscious to percolate the ideas. When you come back, the writing will flow faster and better, in a shorter period of time.
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Great tips Sarah, and you model what you are teaching, so well. I felt as if you were talking to me. I know people who struggle with this issue, and will share your post with them.
I like this bit especially: ‘Most of us, when we speak, don’t stop to think about each word as it comes out of our mouth, yet often people will try to write that way—one word after another wrenched from the brain. Which is pretty much a recipe for bad writing, not to mention an excruciating process.’
Yes, Yes! You’ve nailed it here. I really feel for people who find writing so painful.
Fortunately I can hear myself as I write, and once it’s on the page I like to read the words aloud, as you suggest. Recording and transcribing feels laborious to me, but I know it really works for some people. My son records as he drives his car, or whenever inspiration strikes.
Thanks for a very helpful post.