Have you noticed that the way you write doesn’t match the way you speak? If you feel like your writing is more formal than your everyday speech, then you’re probably correct. Speaking tends to be more casual than writing, in part because we don’t have as much time to prepare, craft, and revise our spoken communication.
When you write the way you speak, it is called informal or conversational writing. While it has its place (we’ll get to that), it’s generally not the clearest or most effective way to convey your thoughts.
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Clear Communication Is Important
Whether spoken or written, the purpose of language is to clearly communicate thoughts and feelings. Most young children learn to speak easily and without formal training. They simply absorb and repeat the language they hear around them; this process is almost automatic. After all, doing so allows them to communicate their needs and desires to those who can help fulfill them.
Anyone who’s ever spent time with a toddler frustrated by their inability to say exactly what they want to say can see that the need to learn to speak is fundamental and instinctive. As we gain language skills, life becomes much easier and more satisfying.
Learning to write is a skill which is not so quickly and easily acquired—it must be taught and requires a lot of practice. It also doesn’t tend to come as easily and naturally as speaking does. Perhaps that’s why schools devote so much time and attention to teaching writing to their students. Children (and, let’s admit it—sometimes us adults) can have a difficult time mastering the seemingly arbitrary rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. While difficult to learn, writing clearly and persuasively is an important life skill that is vital to master.
What are the Differences Between Speaking and Writing?
The reasons it’s not really recommended to write the way you speak become more obvious when you examine the differences between speaking and writing. Nearly everyone can communicate their thoughts in some non-written way. However, not everyone is capable of translating those same thoughts into writing.
When we speak, we’re less likely to use correct grammar and often include partial sentences. Speech is generally more spontaneous than writing and more likely to stray from the subject under discussion.
While verbal speech tends to be full of unstructured phrases and even random thoughts, the written word is generally more structured and focused. After all, unless we are writing dialogue, it’s generally frowned upon to include “um,” “like,” and similar filler words in our writing. It’s also usually best to avoid slang and expletives.
Idioms are also more common in speech than in writing. “Kicking the bucket” and “looking at the radishes from below” both mean the same thing to their respective American and German listeners. However, either one is apt to just confuse a reader who is neither American nor German.
From Speech into Written Words
Organization, structure, and grammar are all important components of the written word. Vocabulary is also an important component. Our speech generally includes a lot of repetition. Our writing, however, should rely on vocabulary to get our point across, rather than repetition. As writers, we also use structure and punctuation for emphasis, and to keep our writing and thoughts orderly. If you write the way you speak, the results tend to be disorganized and confusing.
When we write, we can’t complement our words with facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice as we do when expressing ourselves verbally. That is why we must make those words express our thoughts clearly. We need to expand on our points until they are clear, easy to understand, and the subject is thoroughly explained.
When speaking directly to people, we are constantly adjusting our manner, tone, and vocabulary to the nonverbal feedback we receive, even when we don’t realize we’re doing so. When we write, we have to imagine the readers’ feedback and adjust our style accordingly. We need to make sure our writing is clear, concise, and gets our points across in a way that is easy to digest.
When you write the way you speak, on the other hand, tends to involve rambling that quickly loses your reader’s attention.
Expressing Ourselves Well Through the Written Word
To sum up, keep these best practices in mind to cater to written audiences, spanning varying levels of formality:
- In writing, commas and other punctuation marks represent the pauses and emphasis of our spoken language. Like exclamation marks and question marks, they symbolize our thoughts, feelings, and intent. They replace the vocal emphasis or body language that we use when speaking.
- Sentences, paragraphs, and the correct use of grammar allow us to organize our thoughts in a way that makes sense and is easy to follow and laser-focused.
- We tend to use more complex sentence structure when writing than when speaking. We’re also more likely to use connecting words such as “additionally” and “although” rather than “and” and “but,” which we use so much more in speech.
- Depending on our intended tone and audience, we may use contractions in order to make our writing sound more approachable, since they emulate our normal manner of speaking. Avoiding contractions makes writing much more formal than is usually necessary.
- We tend to use a more formal vocabulary when writing. We might say that we’re making a run to the store where we would write that we’re going shopping.
- We tend to avoid slang words and phrases.
- We support our points with details and explanations so the reader can clearly follow our reasoning and thought processes.
- Once we are done writing, we go back and polish our work. We correct misspellings and grammatical errors, and then we check for clarity. It is this ability to go back and rewrite and revise our work before submitting it to others’ scrutiny that is most responsible for the more formal feel of writing compared to verbal communication. Consider:
- Do the ideas flow between sentences and paragraphs?
- Are we happy with our word choices and sentence structure?
The Permanency of Written Words
New words generally enter our language through people using them in conversation. Once those same words begin appearing in print, they become more widespread and gain greater acceptance. The permanency of writing also influences how people speak, with new words constantly entering our vocabulary. Unfortunately, oral traditions rich in region-specific words and phrases tend to disappear unless written down.
With the advent of the internet, even greater changes are taking place. The more casual manner of writing common in email, texting, and social media has blurred the line between speaking and writing. On the other hand, the internet is forever. This means it’s important to keep quality and your intended brand in mind when writing for the web. There will always be a market for communication that is clear, succinct, and well written.
Is it Ever Okay to Write the Way You Speak?
While writing how you speak is generally frowned upon, injecting a bit of the casual and friendly tone of verbal conversation into your writing is a good thing. As long as your posts are well-structured and easy to understand, being more conversational in your blogging can make clients feel more engaged and help make your brand more approachable. If your writing tends to be a bit too cold and formal, or you rely too much on jargon (please stop doing that), you can probably stand to write a bit more like you talk.
Other forms of written communication, like emails, social media updates, and personal blogging, can come even closer to how you write the way you speak. Adding slang and simplifying your vocabulary—when done deliberately and thoughtfully—can make your writing more engaging and fun to read.
Always keep your audience in mind—an academic journal article is obviously going to be written much more formally and less conversationally than a funny blog you’re putting together for friends and family.
While writing is generally more carefully crafted and formal than verbal communication, the most important thing is to know your audience and aim for writing that is clear, engaging, and concise. It’s never a great idea to write the way you speak, but a touch of conversational communication can be a good thing.
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Editor’s note: this post first appeared in January of 2016. We figured it was time for an update. We’ve included new tips and details to make sure your blogging and writing strategy is as effective as it can be in 2018. Learn more about why you should not write the way you speak.