Why Writing Like a College Student
Will Kill You Online

College Students

This is a guest post by Brian Lash.

When was the last time you curled up with a good book of college essays? Ever perused a great sales letter written in the style of an academic paper?

The college (read: deliberately formal) style has its place in the ivy-coated corners of the world. But it doesn’t belong in our new media blogs, podcasts, and videos. Because it isn’t conversational. It doesn’t match the medium. And it just doesn’t jive with expectations.

Still, most of us find it hard to break the habits of formal writing for two reasons:

  • It’s taught: Students spend years writing the way schooling teaches
  • It’s rewarded: Educators expect and reward the formal style, and “what gets rewarded gets repeated”

And that’s okay… until you discover yourself succumbing to “formal creep,” or the tendency to write in that familiar, formal style, when an informal tone is more suitable.

The following 5 techniques will help you break that habit and set you on the course to better new media writing:

Read for 5 minutes before you write

I like Seth Godin’s simple, unassuming and effective style, so I read his blog just before I write for my own. Try it with Copyblogger: A quick pass will help you recalibrate your mind toward clear, conversational prose, and away from the formality of those books, magazines, and online newspapers we read throughout the day.

It’s a powerful method that’s guaranteed to work for you two out of three times. For the one time it doesn’t, try these:

Start with a single line

Take a chance with a line by swapping it for one that’s less formal. Then let its style cascade through the rest of your work. And don’t worry about overdoing it – that’s why we revise and edit.

Speak it

You did it in grade school to “hear” your mistakes. Read your work aloud today to hear your conversation.
Your new media writing should sound like your everyday speech, albeit a more precise, polished version.

Apply the “impress test”

When you find yourself impressed by your use of a sesquipedalian (ahem, a big word), change it. The same can be said for complete sentences – you should seize any opportunity to simplify your message without compromising its meaning. You’ll find the resulting structure more palatable for the everyday reader, which is critical when you’re writing to be read.

Find someone who will keep you honest

Each one of us slips up. Finding someone who will tell you when you do is the quickest way to keep yourself in the habit of writing conversationally. And it’s as simple as encouraging a friend or colleague to include your feed in his or her reader.

Put these five techniques to the test the next time you want to write for greater impact, relevance, and reach. And when it comes to new media, check the college style at the door.

Brian Lash is Creative Director at First Blog Media and editor of The New Media Monthly.

Image by Thomas.

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Comments

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with knowing how to write – but there is something wrong about NOT knowing what you’re writing for.

    I have my English degree and was primarily taught how to write for formal essays as well as fiction.

    Nonetheless, since graduating I’ve moved more into article writing and journalism – as well as sales letters. Obviously, it’s a style adjustment. But writers who realize there are different styles will be fine, as they can adapt.

  2. Write as you speak is certainly good advice. Unless you speak trashy, of couse! And there’s even place for that on some kinds of blogs. Nice post.

    All success
    Dr.Mani

  3. I find that reading before I write can have a serious impact on my “voice”. In fact, when I’m in a heavy writing cycle I can’t even read fiction at night.

    What happens is that I start sounding like the person I’m reading. It’s kind of like like picking up the accent of someone you are talking too and that’s not always a good thing.

  4. Hey Brian, Thanks for the tips, all of them are great.
    I have always adopted the “Write like you talk” theory. I know this might not be acceptable to most people, but I find it puts most of my readers at ease, especially with their comments.

    Thanks again for the great tips!

    Jim Moon

  5. Great post Brian!

    The best sales writing I’ve seen is by Joe Sugarman – combine your checking techniques and copy Joe’s style and you won’t have any problem selling anything.

    Brian Clark constantly recommends that book, Advertising Secrets of the Written Word. I tend to agree, this book is priceless.

    The secret sauce is to write simple making each sentence entice you to read the next. Formal English teachers (especially those in college) would not agree with many of his suggestions, but then again they aren’t trying to sell anything either.

  6. Another easy rule I’ve learned is to use contractions. It’s too easy to fall back to the formal writing theory that contractions don’t belong in an article, but if I want my writing to come across like I’m sharing something with a friend, then contractions play an important role.

  7. Brian, this article was like deja vu all over again. I was struggling with this just the other day! After painstakingly writing a ridiculously boring to read (but highly graded) school paper I went off to write some copy for a project and a post for the blog. After reading back through everything I might as well have put everything in Times New Roman, double spaced it, set my margins and slapped that sucker on my professors desk…thank heavens for revisions.

    As a college student, I have found that a good way to set the for writing copy or posts while avoiding “English 1010 Voice” is to discuss the topic with someone in the target audience verbally but keep the conversation light and relaxed. With all the ideas fresh in my brain from the conversation, I start to write. It’s worked well for me.

  8. I’m not sure you want me to write as I speak. I’m from Alabama.

    I graduated with an English degree and feel that my college experience taught me much more than how to write in an academic style. As commenter #1 said, a good writer can adapt to any situation or audience.

    I did take a few journalism classes too. I think they brought me back down to earth a little. I was lucky enough to have some great English teachers that allowed a bit more freedom than the average composition teachers did.

    These are great tips though. I definitely recommend reading your work aloud. It helps you catch mistakes and make sure it sounds “right.”

  9. Great tips! These are much like the 3 “Cs” we use at Precise Edit: Clear, Concise, and Consistent. Know what you want to say, and then say it clearly. You impress your readers with good ideas stated clearly, not by using complicated sentence structures or “big” words.

    Even as experienced editors, we still read everything out loud, asking ourselves, “Does this sound right?” and “Does it mean what I want it to mean?”

    Thanks for the great tips!

  10. Great Post Brian-
    As a college student right now- I feel my writing has changed to accomodate what the professor wants. A lot of my profs have literally handed me a guideline of what they want in each paragraph, how many paragraphs it needs to be, etc.

    I hope that when I get out there in the real world, I haven’t lost my voice or my ability to write for everyone besides the academics.

    Thanks for the tips!

  11. Great tips!
    Stilted, formal writing has it’s place, but the informal “writing like you speak” method is one of the best ways to connect to most readers online. Assuming, of course, that you don’t take it to the extreme and litter your posts with netspeak and misspelled words! Informal writing should not mean lazy writing.

  12. @ANWC: Sure, but I think it’s the adapting that hard.

    Sounds like you’ve had plenty of experience flexing that muscle. But for people like me the switch doesn’t come so naturally. And again, it’s for people like me that I wrote this article.

    @Dr. Mani: Haha, true… some just need a bit more “moderation” when it comes to writing like we speak.

    @Lex: Good point, and an important reminder

    @Jim: Yes! A conversational style is an approachable style. And isn’t that what marketing/sales is all about?

    Glad to hear it works for you at your personal blog.

    @Shawn: Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    You raise an interesting question — Copywriting isn’t textbook English. But by the same token it isn’t “wrong.” So what do college English profs think about it?

    @Teeg: Thanks for sharing. That’s an excellent point that belongs on the list. I just forgot it :)

    @Gregg: I once wrote a guest post for an entrepreneurship blog that was so academic it makes me cringe today. Be glad you caught your mistake before you published!

    @Justin: Thanks for your feedback. My background isn’t English (I took up Economics in college). So while I understand that some programs prepare students for flexibility in their writing, others are seriously rigid.

    @David: Exactly! Making a sentence complicated for the sake of, well, making a sentence is mindless. If an underlying idea is difficult, or if it warrants a complex sentence, so be it. But if writing is about communicating a message, why muddy it with the unclear? Better to be Clear, Concise, and Consistent, as you say.

  13. That idea about reading Seth before posting sounds like an excellent plan. I have had ten years of writing technical documents and formal proposals and I’m sure my writing is, at its least formal, too formal.

  14. Daniel Foster :

    Why do college students write like college students anyway?

    It’s worth asking yourself: do you enjoy reading what you wrote? If not, your professor probably won’t, either.

  15. So true. Especially if you’re coming back to blogging after a long break because of doing a major school paper. It’s high time take it slow and re-fresh our selves.

  16. I do think it is important to write in an intelligent manner, without grammatical or spelling errors, but with that said, you should also not write over the heads of your readers.

    Readers also want to be entertained, at least a little, so bland text and dry data won’t go very far. It takes a good balance. Nice article, thanks, Scott

  17. Thanks for the tips.

    Your suggestions will prevent us from writing dry and mundane stuff that no one wants to read.

    Again…Thanks.

  18. Couldn’t agree more with this post! Reading term papers and college essays is about as fun as walking the Sahara without a canteen!

  19. reading for 5 minutes is a useful tip, thank you.

    One thing I do as an artist, is warm up sketches..i wonder if the same will apply for writing?

  20. Audience and topic dictate style. Good writers should be prepared to write in a good variety of styles…if they ever ever want to make any money from their writing, that is.

  21. @ming, I always consider my first drafts to by my warm up sketches, LOL.

  22. I guess there is something to be said for the advice I’ve often heard to write at an eighth grade level. It’s definitely a tightrope to walk while trying to convey ideas above an eighth grade level.

  23. “And it just doesn’t jive with expectations” – I think you meant ‘jibe’, writer guy.

  24. I couldn’t agree more. I wrote something similar on my blog a while back and I’ve had a number of comments from people disagreeing with me. (I’ll refer them here in future….).
    That surprised me, because as far as I’m concerned, this really isn’t even up for debate.
    On the other hand, I make a good living as a writer, working for organisations whose professional staff can’t communicate effectively with the written word, even though they can tell you exactly what they want to say if you just ask them in person. You often find that the more highly educated they are, the harder they find it to write. They can’t break out of that formal straight-jacket.

  25. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for the post! I’ve just recently started a blog on advice for 20-something young women and have found myself writing the big words and fancy sentences that I was oh-so-good at in school. It’d definitely a hard to break habit, and I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person that faces this problem!

  26. Yes, it’s difficult to adapt but it can be done. Between 2004 and 2006 I taught, as a TA, composition to undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh. I also taught short story writing. In my short story classes students did all right with the exposition in their stories but most of them had great difficulty writing the dialogue. The dialogue was stiff, unnatural, and dead to the ear. It wasn’t easy to mix the more formal writing with the more conversational; but it’s doable. And several of my students turned out to be pretty good short story writers.

  27. I’ve always found that my writing style is heavily influenced by what I’m reading. I remember when I was in university I noticed that I was adopting a more academic writing style without really trying. Why? Because I was reading a lot of it and that style was starting to become natural to me. Now I read a lot of blogs and forums so a more informal style feels more natural.

    Write better by reading :)

  28. “Hearing” what you write to make it more conversational doesn’t just apply to blogging. When I was teaching writing to journalists on a tabloid, I always said they should listen to their words as if they were being read on radio.

    Having said that, writing style always depends on who your target readers are, who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to scientists, they’re going to dismiss breezy writing as stupid. If you’re writing for music lovers, or celebrity followers, they’re going to want breezy.

  29. Is there an actual difference between free-flowing thought and conversational voice? I read somewhere that we can think in excess of 1000 words per minute, but our listening ability is about 10 times less than that. I naturally think out aloud and I wonder whether I should foster this free-flow or slow down more to be more conversational in style?

    My chief problem in the past is that whenever I write fast, I compound my errors because I am typing while I am thinking, but when I slow down, my words becomes more conversational in style, but often lose a raw intuitive quality that serves idea generation and is more true to my thoughts in “flow”.

    Also are we actually “writing” online or “typing” and since “typing” occupies 99% of my output, should I discern a difference between the two, or do they share a common skill set?

    M.

  30. First of all, sorry if I make mistakes or sound funny. Spanish is my first language.

    I agree to some extent with you Brian.

    However I think there are many poorly written essays in academic circles. Because it is academic it doesn’t mean that you need to write a text impossible to read by human beings. I recently wrote a very simple article for an academic publication and got excellent feedback from my colleagues. It fulfilled the academic standards and was easy to read.

    The main mistake in academic circles is to cram too much data and too many references in just a few pages. It seems that the more references and figures you have in your paper the better. Wrong!

  31. Syven, they share a common skill set. My advice would be to type as fast as you need to in order to get your thoughts down, but to ensure that you edit so they’re coherent.

    I’ve posted some thoughts on this article at my own site so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I think Mr. Lash doesn’t place enough emphasis on that editing, perhaps because it comes naturally to him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

    And yes, Megan, I think it’s impossible to be a good writer without also reading – as much as you can.

  32. Sigh. “On that editing” -> “on editing”.

  33. Good article. I’m a Malaysian and English is not my first language, so I don’t know how to write for English-as-a-first-language people. Would someone kindly comment on my style of writing on my blog? Thank you:)

  34. i guess we need to start writing somehow and somewhere to keep the momentum of writing … like they say once you start writing (rubbish or not)… you will write till the end.

  35. I don’t know if we should blame college – I think it’s mid-level corporate America. The high-flyers in any market don’t write like that, but all the mid-level folks that just want to keep benefits and get through the day with minimum levels of hassle somehow think that style of writing means a level of sophistication…

  36. Hi Brian,
    Great article on college writing and how it differs from writing good copy that reads well and is easy to get the point across right away. So much academic writing makes you immediately ask “But what does that MEAN?” I hate the condescending attitude that it is just over your ability to understand or your intellect. That is a dead giveaway of a poor writer who cannot write well and just wants to sound intellectual.

    Writing on a higher level has its place but even then it should be written well and not in convoluted sentences that are written for the writers sake of self importance rather than conveying an idea.

  37. I think that academic writing is already undervalued without calling it out as boring. Conversational writing is standard in blogs and some other web writing, but I don’t think there’s any reason to immediately discount a higher form of writing. Conversational writing is everywhere- why not encourage some academic writing to make a few blogs different from all the rest? Enough with all the mindless conversational chit chat and text speak.

  38. Mike, thanks.

    M.

  39. And re-read it next week to see what it looks like! Nice post!
    I read somewhere that when writing sales pages you should pretend that the people reading them are 8 year olds, then you cannot go wrong.
    Just use easy language and down to the point.

    Personally I’ll appreciate anything with good content over anything with poor content, regardless of the form and if the writer’s personality shines through it, then reading might even be fun.
    keep up the good work
    mark

  40. I think this is absolutely right. People don’t want to sit and read things that are full of formal language, no matter how degreed they are. They would rather read something in plain everyday english that still teaches them something.