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The number one reason you find it difficult to write

(Note: this article now comes with a health warning and partial retraction from the author).

One of the main reasons people find it difficult to write is because they adopt a more formal tone of voice as soon as there are words on paper (or the screen). It’s the fault of our education systems.

When people sit down to write, they suddenly come over all formal, or tongue-tied, or pompous. They start using a learnt tone of voice: Learnt from school, college, university, maybe the workplace. They start worrying about sounding important, and the structure of their sentences. They also start to waffle a lot – perhaps because they learnt to write by filling up word quotas for school essays.

Write how you talk.

What you need to do is write how you talk. With a little more care, clearly. You have the chance to think it through first and apply some structure. You have the chance to edit and improve. You should do these things.

But the tone of voice should be informal. Write how you talk. It sounds easy, but it often takes years to learn.

Practice is the only way to get good at this. The more you write, the easier it will get. But try to forget about writing how your teacher wanted or how they do in books. Instead think about how you would say this to a friend or colleague. You might just discover a breakthrough in your writing.

When you get stuck and can’t start, try composing the words as a conversation in your head, or even speak them out loud first. Then write them down and do any editing you need from there.

There’ll be lots more regular posts on this theme and on how to improve all aspects of your writing coming up over the next few weeks and months, so stay tuned.

(Note: this article now comes with a health warning and partial retraction from the author).

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  • The baldchemist November 20, 2007, 10:38 am

    Nice one ! You know most don’t use humour when writing.
    You are so right when you espouse writing the way we talk. I’ve written a bit about this myself- without the platitudes, I hope. But it does take time to be an interesting writer. Thanks so much. The Baldchemist

  • Ute November 20, 2007, 3:11 pm

    This came at a perfect time for me. Thank you.

    Ute… with writer’s block…

  • Steven November 20, 2007, 3:49 pm

    Excellent advice! Basically, school seems to teach you how to do one type of writing, and it’s typically the five-paragraph essay. Creative writing always seems to take a backseat in classes….

  • Dani November 20, 2007, 4:05 pm

    I really don’t altogether agree. I have a friend that talks in run-ons and his writing wouldn’t be particularly good if he wrote like that, also.

  • dk November 20, 2007, 4:30 pm

    I find it helpful to remind myself that the whole point of writing something is for it to be read and understood by whoever reads it. If it becomes anything else it becomes egomassagingwaffle.

    Cool site

  • John November 20, 2007, 4:56 pm

    I’m an editor, and I think the advice here is right on. Write the way you speak. Then read it over and see if some things need to be changed. The important thing is not to get bogged down when writing. Get those creative juices flowing!

    I look forward to seeing more from this site!

  • Simon November 20, 2007, 5:06 pm

    dk – absolutely. Couldn’t agree more.
    John – thanks. I agree with you too, you need to keep going and get words on paper, then go back and edit later. It’s a subject I’m going to explore a lot more.
    Dani – I know what you mean. You can’t take this advice too far. In fact, it probably only applies to certain types of writers in truth. Some people write too much as they talk, with no sentence structure, not much thinking in advance and it all becomes incoherent. I suppose what I’m really getting at is trying to find your own voice, and make it a conversational, relaxed tone. That way, writing will come much more easily and you’ll be a better communicator.

  • Guy Chocensky November 20, 2007, 5:12 pm

    Man, you so, so nailed it.

    “When people sit down to write, they suddenly come over all formal, or tongue-tied, or pompous. They start using a learnt tone of voice: Learnt from school, college, university, maybe the workplace. They start worrying about sounding important, and the structure of their sentences. ”

    People do not communicate in formal sentences.

    Their sentences will not pass the sniff test of a high school English teacher, but then too, high school English teachers seldom create great works of art.

    The problem is that learning to write as we speak is damned hard because most of the rules of rhetoric tell us that how we actually speak isn’t good enough to go down on paper.

    All pure class-war blather, of course. Most of the “rules” of grammar were pure invention of 19th century sycophants hoping to teach the lower classes to ape the upper classes. Those rules not only aren’t right, they aren’t even useful.

    I don’t care whether you went to the finest prep school in America, or you are a toothless economically disadvantaged doublewide dweller, how you speak IS correct if people understand your point.

    In fact the street-speak of most Americans is FAR more poetic to most of us than the stick up the ass drivel of scholastic writers.

    Imagine what Huck Finn would read like if Twain had been so enamored with these artificial rules of grammar.

    Guy Chocensky, President
    Children’s Books Online: the Rosetta Project, Inc.
    Searsport, Maine; USA
    http://www.childrensbooksonline.org

  • Xstamper November 20, 2007, 5:23 pm

    Great info. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ashley November 20, 2007, 5:56 pm

    Mindful of the comments above I am experimenting with voice recognition software when I do documents and letters (not this one).

    While I can achieve near perfect accuracy I can see it will still take time when I can achieve the “flow” that I achieve when I speak to people, something I flatter myself that I do rather well.

    Nevertheless I will know in a few years whether it was all worth it .. 🙂

  • Simon November 20, 2007, 6:01 pm

    Guy, great point about Mark Twain. (Man, he could write, couldn’t he?). Do you remember some of those great documentaries like The West and there was one on the American civil war. They read from lots of letters from the time. And the standard of writing was outstanding. You really could hear the voice of the poeple who wrote those letters.
    Ashley, good luck with the voice recognition. I’ve never got it to work adequately on a technical level. But maybe it’s improved over the years.

  • freebird November 20, 2007, 6:18 pm

    a very helpful web page me.

  • fred lapides November 20, 2007, 6:22 pm

    In college, or at least in those I am familiar with, writing as you speak is usually suggested. The problem though is that if you listen to how most people talk you will know that changes have to be made in order to cut the filler words.

  • Josh Boldman November 20, 2007, 7:24 pm

    So true! I definitely have found this to be a stumbling block to overcome. I mean, no one talks like they taught us to write in grade school. It takes all of the flair out of the language and simultaneously makes it rather boring to read. Thanks for the tip.

    Josh Boldman
    http://www.joshboldman.com

  • Duncan November 20, 2007, 8:03 pm

    Pay heed to this article, y’all. I believe this is what the READER wants – to get the essence of the WRITER as well as the written piece. This is how I’ve done it since the start and I feel greater affinity with my work when I read it back. In addition, people who know me say this is why they enjoy reading what I write – because it’s written as I would say it aloud, and they’ve said they find it easier to ‘get into my head’ when they’re reading it.

    I always find it offputting to read stuffy, overly-verbose writing – I feel like it’s not aimed at me and almost like I shouldn’t be reading it. That said, I’m certainly not criticising truly great writers who’ve written that way and been successful beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve with my humble prose!!

  • Alex November 20, 2007, 8:22 pm

    You’re pointing in the right direction. Moving toward the attitude and feel of conversational speech is a great idea. For most people I encounter, however, to write exactly the way they speak would be a disaster: run-on and incomplete sentences, annoying fillers like “you know” and “uh” and “like” and misused/overused words, e.g., “incredible,” “amazing” and “literally” present more than enough communication obstacles on the street without encouraging folks to commit the mess to the page.

    But I agree entirely that it works best when we can hear and feel the writer in the writing; and also agree that formal education is one of the greatest threats to good writing currently.

  • Jersey Maggs November 20, 2007, 9:49 pm

    This is very basic advice.

  • compsecguy November 20, 2007, 10:15 pm

    Very nice. I like the part about writing just how you talk. I find your advice helpful for my new position as lead in our Security awareness program. Some nice pointers I will tuck away and think about as I write. Thanks.

  • CEEBEE November 21, 2007, 1:50 am

    You know when I freeze? Office birthday cards. They’re the worst. I’m trying to be the funniest guy in the office, and it ends up taking 20 minutes to write the stupid thing. Then, when the birthday boy or girl gets the card, they don’t even read it. From now on, I’m sticking with “Happy birthday. Let’s do drinks.”

  • xyvoglom November 21, 2007, 12:18 pm

    You used the wrong there/their in your first paragraph.

    This is an article on writing, on a website about writing. Conclusion: You fail.

  • Simon November 21, 2007, 12:33 pm

    xyvoglom, sorry, but you’re wrong. I used “there are” correctly. So I don’t fail.

  • Jersey Maggs November 21, 2007, 5:37 pm

    xyvoglom owes Simon an apology.

  • Simon November 21, 2007, 5:41 pm

    I think he probably just read the sentence quickly and got mixed up.

  • Gregor November 21, 2007, 8:47 pm

    Right, this is how a talk.
    I’m scottish ye see so its kinda like mostly the wee neds that talk in text speak ands tuff but Coz am scottish a use a few bits ae scottish patter in ma writin obviously only on MSN, but when im at college i type proper and formal

  • Boingy November 22, 2007, 7:44 am

    Don’t write “how they do in books”???

  • Simon November 22, 2007, 8:38 am

    Boingy, of course people should try to learn from the style of great writers who are far more often to be found in books than they are on the web. The thrust of this post is aimed at people who may be highly educated and great communicators in many ways, but get ‘tongue-tied’ when they try to write. It just doesn’t feel natural to them. The problem is they try to be too formal and adopt an unnatural tone of voice. Look out for some further posts on this subject. I think I need to explain and elaborate a bit further.

  • Guy Chocensky November 22, 2007, 3:48 pm

    Writing is a craft first, and an art second. Master that craft and something approaching art might follow.

    What I typically found when I was teaching was that when people cannot express their thoughts coherently, their problem wasn’t that they merely lacked the verbal craft to do so. No, the problem was more often that they hadn’t really figured out what they really thought about that subject.

    Haven’t any of you ever noticed that you can better understand what you think about some subject when you sit down and try to express your thoughts about that subject on paper?

    In fact, haven’t we all had the experience of trying to write down what we thought only to discover that what we thought really didn’t make any sense?

    The thing about verbalization is that it forces us to take those incomplete thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings that were perfectly satisfactory to us until we needed to share them, and impose some order upon that mess inside our heads.

    Unexpressed thoughts — especially those involving things we really care about — are often little more than a jumbled combination of facts and feelings that don’t really make logical sense to US either.

    Emotionally, we might have been perfectly content with that mess. But if we are hoping to share that mess with others, then it HAS to make sense within the constraints of verbal logic.

    So verbalizing is REALITY TESTING.

    Verbalization imposes the linguistic logic of our language upon the stuff inside our heads.

    Incidently, that’s why something expressed in street jive can be just as logical and just as intelligent as anything expressed in what we currently call standard language in the world’s most prestigious universities.

    All the same tyrany of logic exists in every language, every argot, every tongue mankind has ever cobbled together, precisely because verbalization imposes linguistic LOGIC on thought.

    Writing doesn’t just make it possible for others to understand your thinking. Its most valuable service is to help US understand what we are thinking.

    By verbalizing our thoughts we are really formating that comfortable chaos of our internal monologue into the structure of the word, and testing it against the reality of the world outside of ourselves.

  • Bart November 25, 2007, 10:57 am

    That’s all very well, write like you speak, but it depends a good deal on who is talking.

    The semi-literate wafflers I see daily on tv I should not like to emulate in my writing, nor the stutterings, interspersed with puerile interjections like “really cool”, of my 14 year old son.

    By all means write to say what you mean, but use specific, meaningful words in a logical order. Writing does not have to sound like speech when read aloud.

  • Guy Chocensky November 25, 2007, 6:26 pm

    “The semi-literate wafflers I see daily on tv I should not like to emulate in my writing, nor the stutterings, interspersed with puerile interjections like “really cool”, of my 14 year old son. ”

    Like E=MC2, dude!

    Hmmm…

    Now, had Einstein expressed it that way, would it have been puerile?

    The reason your son’s speech is ” displaying or suggesting a lack of maturity” is because your son is displaying his lack of maturity.

    That’s like, totally not his fault, daddeo, Dig?

    14 year old brains are not fully matured, yet.

    Word!

  • compsecguy November 26, 2007, 8:44 pm

    haha. That’s good ceebee. I love it! I’m pretty bad when it comes to birtrhday cards too. I usually get half way througgh the card and misspell a word, so I started using pencil when ever I sign a card. Thanks for the laugh.

  • Kobra November 27, 2007, 5:43 am

    Great advice! I write things as I say them, but I’m really nerdy so I tend to write it grammatically correct; this annoys my English teachers when they tell me to write a rough draft.

  • Shelley November 28, 2007, 2:37 am

    I think for the most part this is BS. There are different kinds of writing — I think we could all agree to this — and every rhetorical situation calls for different needs in terms of tone, structure, audience, etc. Interestingly, these differences also apply to speaking: We don’t speak in the same way to a professor as we would to an old friend. So it’s extremely oversimplified to say that one should just seek to write how they talk. For that begs the question, talk when? And even if we accept this person’s assumption that each of us talk the same all the time, how would different pieces of writing be distinguishable? If a joke and a poem and report and speech were all simply “written the way in which we speak,” then what would be the difference between a joke and a poem and a report and a speech? Clearly all of these have situational and rhetorical elements that in some ways define them as writing in the first place.

    That said, I could find a couple of these points useful.

  • Terry December 5, 2007, 4:53 am

    Shelly, I whole-heartedly agree with you. Every situation requires a different tone, style, and diction. In the business world, common practice is to write professionally with proper grammar. In any type of school situation it is required to write professionally with proper grammar. This article must apply to writing a speech or a story. One can write however they would like, but in a business situation in today’s world it would still come off as unprofessional so write as one speaks. Maybe that’s not how it should be, but that’s how it is.

  • Simon December 6, 2007, 4:46 pm

    Want more on this subject? There’s several follow-ups on this site, and this article on copyblogger might be of interest: http://www.copyblogger.com/college-writing/

  • Simon December 6, 2007, 4:50 pm

    By the way, I think that just about every professional writer living would agree that you need to aim for a conversational tone of voice.
    I’m currently writing material for a Government agency here in the UK (the Environment Agency), and this is from their writing guidelines issued to all staff:
    “Write in the way that you would speak to someone.”
    You wouldn’t talk to a business colleague in street rap. But you wouldn’t talk to them in nonsense jargon and sentences 100 words long, either.

  • Airek December 12, 2007, 3:26 pm

    Sir Ken Robinson gave a very good talk at the TED conference about how school is educating us away from creativity. I agree that school is often enemy to creativity in writing.

  • Guy Chocensky December 12, 2007, 6:22 pm

    I don’t think schools stifle creativity.

    Well they do, but so does our society generally.

    It’s the nature of large systems which are expected to produce students with a certain amount of schooling to stifle their “creativity”.

    Because allowing them to follow their “creative instincts means they never have the time to teach the kids to read write or do basic math.

    I also think the “experts” at TED don’t really have a clue what they’re talking about, frankly.

    More top-down, let us experts (who it turns out haven’t ever taught school at those levels) tell you what to think.

    Free you mind, champ.

    Most of these so called self proclaimed “experts” aren’t.

    What they are is well connected to the money which produces things like TED.

    Cosy for those speakers, of course, but hardly useful to those of us who are actually doing something in education.

    The experts in education, I have come to find, are generally charlatans who never taught and haven’t got a clue what teachers, schools and kids are really facing.

  • Airek December 12, 2007, 6:32 pm

    Ken Robinson is an educator. He is also an idealist, but it’s the ideals of those who can step temporarily outside the situation that we strive to follow, because they inspire us. It’s the “shoot for the stars” mantra, which is optimistic, but wouldn’t you rather think optimistically about our children’s future rather than pessimistically?

  • John Haynes December 12, 2007, 6:56 pm

    I want to go back to Guy Chocensky’s remarks. It is so true about the 19th century grammar sycophants. For instance, many so-called grammar experts even today say you shouldn’t split an infinitive. But that “rule” comes from Latin, where it’s not possible to split an infinitive. There’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive in English. Ever heard “To boldly go where no one has gone before”? Most editors will tell you not to split an infinitive with a negative adverb: “to not go” is usually better as “not to go.” But that’s not even an absolute rule. Sometimes it’s necessary to split ’em with negatives.

  • Guy Chocensky December 12, 2007, 7:04 pm

    An educator, or a college professor?

    Not nearly the same thing at all.

    Anybody can teach college. It’s a piece of cake.

    It take nerves of steel to teach in public schools at the k-12 levels nowadays.

    We drive out good creative teachers early in their careers and the only people left are the good soldier types because they’re the only people who can put up with the nonsese coming down from on high.

    Blaming schools for what happened TO SCHOOLS is putting the cart before the horse.

    A sick society creates sick educational system, and our modern consumer driven society is sick of heart and mind, too.

    That’s why our prisons are hell, our health care system stinks, and every other social service we offer is in trouble.

    You can’t keep electing people who HATE gopverment and democracy and expect the systems they control not to go to hell.

    Blaming schools forthis mess is idiotic.

    Blame the society which is destorying middle class families because if the kids are a mess, that mess started at home.

  • Simply Stephen March 8, 2008, 9:22 pm

    Excellent advice…as a footnote, people tend to be verbose in speech, brevity can make your point stronger and more likely to be read. Simplifying is a complex task.

  • Jimmy Nwueber January 7, 2010, 12:49 am

    Wow that seems really informative. I will have to check that out.

  • seo packages January 9, 2010, 6:23 pm

    Brevity is the soul of wit.
    Hamlet

    Wm Shakespeare

    (He should know)

  • seo packages January 17, 2010, 2:31 pm

    we all become lawyers for some reason.

  • lyndon at seo packages March 28, 2010, 6:12 pm

    Nailed it my friend. its far easier to say than do though.
    Thanks
    Lyndon

    • Simon March 28, 2010, 6:27 pm

      @Lyndon – point taken… I’ve actually been working on a book on the subject, and once that’s ready I’ll return to this in more depth, explaining more about how to do it. It’s not a simple thing, and takes a lot of practice. Worth it though, if you are going to do a lot of writing in your life.

  • Kevin Kane August 31, 2010, 11:35 pm

    Many writers believe they look smarter when they write in the most complex manner possible. But it’s just the opposite: writing clearly, simply, directly and concisely will make you look brilliant.

    Writing simply and directly is hard work. The hallmark of a great stylist is the ability to explain a difficult concept in the simplest possible way.

  • Nanna March 15, 2011, 9:59 pm

    Kevin: You´re quite right. Real writers don´t try to adopt a certain style or to copy anybody – they just write, because they can´t help it!