The most impactful piece of writing advice I ever received was: “Write like you talk.”
Before that, I wrote to please my 9th grade English teacher. With it, my focus turned from trying to sound smart to injecting fun and freshness into my writing. My writing immediately improved. But now, I’ve realized the advice is ultimately limiting.
When you talk, you can emphasize words with sound, speed, and body movements. Changing the tone of your voice can alter the meaning of your sentence. But writers have no such luxury. At the keyboard, you have to add meaning with fresh word choice. While talking happens at the snappy speed of conversation, words on the page have infinite patience. And while talking is like a live performance where you have to complete a painting in a single sitting, writing lets you paint over your mistakes until you reach peak precision. Sketch-by-sketch and layer-by-layer, you achieve a higher fidelity image of the world you’re describing.
Writing like you talk is good advice because it forces you to write clearly, which is the first step towards improving your writing. But follow the advice too closely and your sentences will suffer. I realized this pattern while reading Rene Girard. His books are notoriously hard to read. They are high in word diversity, but low on clarity so I skipped right to his interviews. Most of them quoted him verbatim, so I slogged through them. But the best ones were groomed with the razor of a professional editor who widened the aperture of his vocabulary while maintaining the “oh wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before” punch that makes his ideas so profound.
Whenever you write, there are three buckets of words you can choose from: (1) words people know and say, (2) words people know but don’t say, and (3) words people don’t know and don’t say.
Pulling more from the second bucket will make your writing sharper and more descriptive. You’ll transcend the limits of speech while avoiding the trap of trying to sound smart by using $10 words that nobody understands. As a writer, time to edit is the biggest advantage you have over your talking self. Mine the depths of your brain for the illustrative language that hides in the chamber of “words people know but don’t say.”
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