Let’s face it, most people can’t write their way out of a paper bag. Further, most bloggers are boring writers, and most journalists are so heavily edited that any personality they’ve added to a story has long since been weaned out by the editorial process.
I want to let you in on a secret, though: it’s not really that people are boring, but that too many have been taught that you shouldn’t write the same way you talk. I blame our educational system, actually, with those 5th grade teachers who drilled us on adverbs, pronouns and the minutia of grammar, coupled with too many boring, tedious academic books that we all suffered through while in college.
Instead, I suggest to you that the best way to write clear, coherent, engaging and enjoyable content is to write the way you speak, to recognize your spoken voice and pour it out onto the virtual page of your computer screen and weblog.
How The Heck Do I Learn How To Be Less Formal?
Don’t worry, you can teach yourself to write in a manner consistent with how you speak, but the first step is to give yourself permission to be imperfect. I assure you that it’s okay to have awkward grammatical structure (as I demonstrate in this article!) and poke fun at yourself (as I do with parenthetical remarks in most of my writing, be it my newspaper column, a book or a blog entry). Advanced work includes adding what I call ‘verbal fillers’ like “um”, and “ah” and “hmmm”, but even without that, relaxing and writing with a more informal, less structured style will prove a great benefit to both you and your readers.
Let me give you a quick demonstration of verbal fillers, shall I?
So let’s say that you want to learn how to write like you speak? Well, y’know, if you really listen to dialog, you’ll quickly realize that people, um, you’ll notice that there are all sorts of mistakes… um, imperfections… errors people make when they’re, um, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, how people really talk, versus what we get in print and the insipid, stilted artificial dialog in movies and on TV, um, television.
That’s a bit much on the verbal imperfections scale, I admit, but I hope you can see the point I’m getting at? (and, yes, it’s okay to end sentences with a preposition!) If you want your readers to enjoy your prose, to find what you’re writing compelling and engaging, then I strongly encourage you to experiment with adding imperfections to your next blog entry (or, more likely, simply stop scrubbing them out as you re-read what you’ve initially written).
Being completely informal won’t work for all types of writing, but the general idea that I’m trying to get to here (or “attain”, if you prefer) is that good writers have “a voice”, a distinctive style that both helps them communicate quickly and accurately and helps you understand their thoughts and ideas. There’s no reason in the world why you shouldn’t also have a distinctive voice.
How do I put this in action? I write three blogs, Ask Dave Taylor, which focuses on tech support, gadgets and gizmos, The Business Blog @ Intuitive.com, which is business, management and marketing discussions, and the Attachment Parenting Blog, which is, you guessed it, about parenting and other more personal topics. Fairly diverse, and yet if you compare them, you’ll find that my writing style is remarkably similar across the three.
Here’s a randomly selected sentence from a recent blog entry on the tech site: “Your wording might be slightly different, but you can see that it’s pretty easy to set this up in Gmail.” “Pretty easy”? Surely I shouldn’t say that, I should just say “easy”? Nope, “pretty easy” is a simple example of my voice creeping in: that’s what I’d say if we were talking about it face to face.
My parenting site has an even better example of the informal voice I use:
“Me, I also had my tonsils removed when I was 8, and have almost no memories of it other than how cool it was to be in a hospital, have new books to read (and, doubtless, some comic books too) and be able to eat as much ice cream and drink as much soda as I wanted. Nice! Pain? Drugs? No memories of that stuff. Probably just as well.”
There are many ways that I could have tightened that prose to make it more grammatically correct, but then I’d lose my informal voice. I bet when you read that previous paragraph, you could almost hear my voice in your head saying those words, a far more intimate and effective style of communication than the dry alternative of “When I had my tonsils removed, I recall a hospital bed, new books, ice cream, soda and precious little else.”
Ya Got Any Tricks For Me To Learn This?
What a splendid question! The trick I’ve used to learn how to cultivate and write with a distinctive voice is to read what I write out loud rather than just subvocalize it as I write. Not only is this a great way to learn which sentences are too long or need commas or other breaks so you can breath (a skill that can’t be overrated!) but it also helps you “hear” which of your sentences are awkward and stilted rather than flowing and relaxed.
Let me wrap this up with an exercise for you: next time you write a blog entry, get to the last word then take ten or fifteen minutes to do something completely unrelated, leaving it unpublished. After you’ve had a chance to switch gears, go back to your editing screen, scroll to the top, and read what you’ve written out loud to your cat, the far wall, your cube-mate, whomever. Does it really sound like you talking?
Change, tweak, edit, add imperfections, alter your prose until it sounds at least somewhat similar to your speech patterns and read it out loud again. Iterate on that two or three times then, finally, when you’re ready, push that “publish” button.
Practice this discipline for a few weeks and before you know it you’ll find that you’re finding your writer’s voice, your blog has become more accessible and enjoyable reading, and your readers are becoming loyal fans.
Big Huge Caveat: having encouraged you to be more informal with your writing, I do not suggest that you toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater here. Basic grammatical structure, matching verb tense, spelling and punctuation are all important and do help you communicate effectively. I’m simply encouraging that you play with your prose to create something that’s more reflective of who you are and how you really communicate. Capiche?
About the Author: Dave Taylor has been involved with the Internet since 1980, which makes him a contemporary of Al Gore, more or less. He writes thousands of words a week, most of which are reasonably coherent, he thinks.