When my husband and I lived in Baltimore, we shared an office on the third floor of our 14-foot-wide row house. It’s a miracle we stayed married.
Now I admit: I’m a talker. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I’m also a reader. I read everything I write out loud. This is not “friendly” behavior when you share an office.
Yet it is productive. Because the more spoken your writing sounds, the easier it is for a reader to digest your ideas. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a sales letter, a travel article, a short story, or a note to your bank.
But as you know, if you’ve ever sat down to write this way, it can be harder than you think it should be.
I think this is because we lash ourselves to certain “rules” of writing we learned in school.
And to write with a “chatty” voice, you’ve got to let those rules go.
Now, for the record: I am a strict grammarian. At least three times a day, I interrupt the stories my children tell me to say things like, “Johnny and I played on the slide … not Johnny and me!” When people use apostrophes incorrectly, it makes me nuts. I wear t-shirts with grammar jokes on them.
So I am not suggesting that you cloak your good thoughts in bad English.
All I’m saying is that if you relax a few of those “academic” writing rules, your language will automatically sound more “spoken.”
Here are three quick-and-easy fixes that’ll get you most of the way there:
1. GET RID OF PASSIVE VOICE.
First, know what it is. Passive voice is any form of the verb “to be” (is, am, are, was, were, be, been) plus a past participle of a verb. Like “is taken” or “was seen” or “are revealed.”
Passive voice tends to make your writing sound more “formal” or “distant.” But you want your writing to sound friendly. So here’s what you do:
a) Use “you.”
Instead of: “Relief can be had instantly with this single pill.”
Try: “You can relieve your symptoms instantly with this single pill.”
b) Put a “doer” before the verb in your sentence. That’ll force you to tell your reader who’s responsible for the action.
Instead of: “It is reported that 45% of older American workers have physically demanding jobs.”
Try: “The New York Times reports that …” or “Research shows that …” or “I just read in the paper that 45% of older American workers have physically demanding jobs.”
2. PICK SHORTER WORDS.
I don’t care how smart your readers are – I promise they don’t walk around speaking in long strings of three-syllable words. They just don’t.
Yet it’s easy to let “fancy” words creep onto your page when you write. Go back and edit them out. They sound artificial when you read them.
As Mark Twain put it, “I never write metropolis for seven cents, because I can get the same money for city. I never write policeman, because I can get the same price for cop …”
Intelligent gentleman. Or, um, smart guy.
3. TRIM YOUR SENTENCES AND VARY THEIR LENGTH.
Stick to one idea per sentence. That will help keep your sentences shorter. And shorter sentences are easier to digest.
Even one-word sentences – which you probably learned in school are not sentences – can be effective. They can help you emphasize your point and break up a page, too.
READ YOUR COPY OUT LOUD
As I said up front, I always read my copy aloud as I write. I suggest you do the same. It doesn’t work to just read it in your head. You need to hear the sounds. That’s when you notice the awkward parts, the areas where you stumble. When you find passages like that, go back and fiddle. Ask yourself, “How would I say this?” And then write that down.