It’s easy to think that you should write how you speak. After all, 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 many writers 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.
|| Shouting in Print
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 becomes for a reader. As a writer, it’s important to understand that you can emphasize a point without using ALL CAPS or bolding or throwing! exclamation! points! everywhere! You can do this through techniques such as effective repetition (again, that’s effective repetition; not all repetition is effective) and basic phrasing choices.
|| Referencing “The Reader”
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.
Another great example of this is David McCullough’s historical work 1776, which I talked about in this post.
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. (For more on that, read my article “3 Tips for Avoiding Bad Dialogue.”)
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.