Polishing Your Prose, Part 7: Don't Write Exactly How You Speak

7.31.2012

{The subject of this post is courtesy of Audra}

It's easy to think that you should write how you speak. We talk and we write, so shouldn't we write how we talk? This belief is especially true in nonfiction; and to narrow the field even further, I find this to be particularly true for those who are pastors, counselors, and public speakers by profession. However, there's most certainly a misconception to be aware of, because what people don't understand is that writing exactly how you speak will almost never sound natural. What you need to do instead is work to make your writing sound like natural speech without it actually being so. 

When I'm reading nonfiction, I personally find it annoying when an author shouts at me, makes a reference "to the reader," or goes off on a tangent. However, these are all things someone could do effectively in a speech. For example, motivational speakers often get louder when they're stressing a certain point. Pastors do this too. In print, however, you're limited to the words on the page, and no amount of capitalization or bolding is going to get your point across if you aren't paying attention to your phrasing. 


Dave Ramsey is a great example of shouting in print. Unfortunately, I don't have a book on hand to show an example, but if you've ever read a Dave Ramsey book you know what I'm talking about. He's a shouter, and even though his books on finance are full of useful advice, I found myself getting distracted.  

Exclamation points are one way to shout in writing! 
Another way is bolding.
ALL CAPS IS PROBABLY THE MOST OBVIOUS. 

Imagine this happening all over the book, and you can see how distracting this would be. You can emphasize a point without using all caps, and you can do this through techniques such as effective repetition (again, that's effective repetition; not all repetition is effective) and basic phrasing choices. 

Writers also think they should reference the "reader." This can make sense when you're in front of an audience. You want to get them involved, perhaps, speaking directly to the people sitting right in front of you. But in a book, while you should be personable, direct reader address isn't the best option. (Of course, there are those authors who bend the rules, but you should first know the rules before you break them. And let's be honest: at this point, Stephen King should be able to do what he wants.)

I've worked with authors who think saying "dear reader" is creative and fun; and maybe it is for a children's book. But I saw this in adult books, which is a whole different post of its own on knowing your audience. I usually find this condescending, as though the author doesn't trust me enough to get his point. Saying something like, "Now listen up..." might work in an oral presentation, but in a book it doesn't work as well.

The final point I'll discuss is that of tangents. As a general rule, you should avoid tangents at any cost, specifically the phrase "now back to my original point..." This is true for both speeches and prose. No one likes someone who can't get to a point. However, in a speech, at least your audience is pretty stable. It's not like they can all just get up and leave at the same time if they're bored (usually); but a reader will shut a book without a thought if you don't make a clear point and get to it in an interesting way--and do it quickly.

Now, I'm most certainly not condoning giving a boring speech, and it just might be my preference toward the written word, but it's imperative that you keep your prose interesting by clearly leading your readers from one point to the next. Hook them with interesting first sentences and a cohesive outline so they'll keep turning the pages. In his Bonhoeffer biography, Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas does a brilliant job taking the reader on a journey through the life of Germany in the 1940s. Everything he said had a clear point, and each of those points built upon one another. (You can read my review here.)

It takes good writing and careful editing to make prose sound natural, and when it's carefully examined, you'll almost always find that it's not written exactly how you would say it. I've touched mostly on nonfiction in this short essay, probably because I happen to be reading a nonfiction book at the moment (that, and I want to keep this post fairly short). Keep in mind, however, that fiction is part of this as well. Dialogue between two characters will not be a transcribed conversation you recorded at your local coffee shop. Real-life dialogue is full of "um" and "like," which makes for annoying written dialogue. Also, real-life dialogue is surprisingly boring.

So keep this in mind the next time you read or write or listen to a speech or give a speech. Writing and speaking are two separate mediums, and just because you're gifted in one doesn't mean you should do the other. They certainly can work alongside each other--for example, I always recommend reading your writing out loud as an editing tool--but when it comes to polishing your prose, you shouldn't write exactly how you speak.

7 comments:

  1. I love this series, and always learn something new. And heaven knows I can use new knowledge in this department. ;)

    Also, did you know it only shows part of your post and then has a link you have to click to read the rest? Maybe you did that on purpose. Or maybe blogger is full of the devil, both of which are probable.

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  2. I take the opposite approach and always make an effort to speak the way I write. I am a much more eloquent writer, so I keep hoping that I will sound more intelligent if I talk the same way I write. This led to me being teased about my weird vocabulary a lot when I was growing up.

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  3. Katie, that is definitely an interesting approach, and something I would not suggest to everyone... maybe only you and Kalyn :) I almost think I'm being hypocritical with this post, because I often DO write how I speak. But I still think when you're learning the basics (or when you aren't a good writer) you should not write how you speak. Pioneer woman is a good example. I love her blog, but I find some of her more stream-of-consciousness-this-is-exactly-what-I'm-thinking posts annoying. A bit of self-editing might serve her well.
    Thanks for the comment!

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  4. Good post, and good points. You've gone a good job of fleshing out a bare-bones idea into something usable.

    I must disagree wholeheartedly with Katie, though. The reciprocal transfers just as poorly as what you've outlined here. There's a reason it's somebody's actual job to be a speech writer for politicians, and there's a reason that not just any ol' "good writer" can GET those jobs. A good speech writer knows how to blend good writing with good speaking tactics so the person reading/making the speech will not weigh too heavily on one side or the other.

    Speaking is for speaking, writing is for writing, and blending the two is quite an art that very few people have.

    -A

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  5. Audra,
    Thanks for the comment (and look, I'm responding!). I'm thankful you were nice enough to tell me I pulled some good points out of a post that admittedly was not my best effort. You're very gracious. Good point about speech writing. I don't think I would be a particularly good speech writer. I also wonder if speech writers are themselves good speakers...
    Food for thought.

    -R

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  6. I just read a C.S. Lewis quote about this from his prologue in Mere Christianity. I will share. *ahem*

    "The contents of this book were first given on the air, and then published in three separate parts...In the printed version I reproduced this, putting don't and we've for do not and we have. And wherever, in the talks, I had made the importance of a word clear by the emphasis of my voice, I printed it in italics. I am now inclined to think that this was a mistake--an undesirable hybrid between the art of speaking and the art of writing. A talker ought to use variations of voice for emphasis because his medium naturally lends itself to that method: but a writer ought not to use italics for the same purpose. He has his own, different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them."

    Sorry, Reese, if this comment is too long. But I thought it was such a good quote, and I don't blog about writing. that I thought this was the perfect opportunity to showcase it. Great blog.

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  7. BC,
    I LOVED that quote. That is so perfect. I should probably just delete this post and insert that quote in there. Bravo, madam.

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