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Write like you talk (paulgraham.com)
647 points by bakztfuture on Oct 25, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 272 comments



If you've ever read a verbatim transcript of an interview or conversation, you'll know that actual speech is anything but clear. When talking off the cuff, even the most clear minded people tend to ramble, um and ahh, double back, talk across each other, and jump between points and subjects.

When listening to someone in person, our brains seem to edit what they say on the fly to make it comprehendible, focusing on the important bits and forgetting the rest. When it's presented in written form, such as in a newspaper or magazine article, a skilled journalist has usually done the editing for us.

This means that what we consider a “conversational” tone in written language is not a representation of natural communication so much as an idealised version of it. That doesn't mean it isn't useful to strive for it, particularly in business and academic writing that otherwise tends towards the turgid, but it isn't as simple as telling people to “write how you talk”. Writing conversational prose that achieves clarity whilst not being oversimplified, patronising or banal requires practice and skill.

I also think, conversely, that while a conversational tone can improve formal writing about complex topics, the reverse can be true. It's possible to enliven mundane topics by being less direct and more playful with language.


Indeed, "write like you talk" is not quite the right way to go about it. In my experience that usually leads to a stream-of-consciousness mess.

However, one thing I have found almost universally helps my students is similar: read what you have written OUT LOUD. Is it halting and hard to read? Confusing and obtuse? Then you should probably fix it. There seems to be some magic about actually speaking the words out loud (as opposed to just reading it like normal editing) that helps a lot of people figure out when a piece of writing is bad.


I think this might be because rather than 'write how you talk', what you actually want to do is write how you would talk if you had time to say the best version of your thoughts. This means if you couldn't see yourself sitting down and saying the stuff you're writing to somebody, it's probably no good. If what you write doesn't have a natural flow when spoken from the tongue, it probably won't when people read it either.


> read what you have written OUT LOUD

I sometimes use this when not writing anything that is destined to directly go to other people in order to help my understanding. When working on a confusing problem I try to write it down as if I was explaining it to another person, and verbalise in my head what I have written (I'm liking the TTS solution someone mentioned elsewhere in the thread, I might have to bring some headphones into work and try that). It is surprising how often making myself write down the problem as if explaining it to another person makes the blindingly obvious solution that I'm until that point missing (or just over complicating) jump out.

Thinking of the problem as if you have to explain it to someone (even if that someone is an imaginary friend version of myself) forces me to organise my thoughts in a more structured manner (this leads to that which causes the other because of the thing that does the things to the other things so I considered that update but that would conflict with function X... - for more complicated things I'll even draw myself a diagram) which highlights the parts I'm skipping over but shouldn't be.


My adage has always been "if you can't teach it to someone with a minimal background, you don't really understand it." If I really need to study a topic, I prepare as if I was going to give a lecture on it. That usually makes it painfully obvious where the holes in what I know are.


> read what you have written OUT LOUD

I use Text to Speech to listen to all my posts before I submit them. I also use TTS and read at the same time to improve my attention. TTS imposes a constant pace and makes the message more pregnant.


I recently received a lengthy email of minor grammar errors in a programming manual I had written. I thanked the diligent bug reporter, and expressed surprise that so many mistakes had gone unnoticed for as long as they had. He told me that he was blind, and rather than reading the manual, he listened to it through a TTS system, thus catching some problems that might have been easy to miss visually.


So in short, "talk what you write" might be better advice than "write like you talk".


Perhaps "write like you want them to hear" is a better way to think about it as it acknowledges the inner voice the reader will use when they read.


Isn't he basically saying use your natural lexicon vs. an artificial one (typically used to make oneself sound more educated).


This is funny, perhaps like others here, I find I usually have to reduce the complexity of my speech compared to my internal dialogue: particularly in using more commonplace vocabulary. Sadly barely anyone I know (including my wife) understands half the words I use. Indeed sometimes I don't really grok them myself; my brain just finds them most apposite.

So should I write as I [find I need to] speak or should I write with my natural lexicon?


Depends. The main point the author in the OP doesn't seem to understand:

Know your audience.

"Dumb down" your writing, but only if it will help you communicate with the person (or people) you're targeting. Else there's no benefit to it.


I think so, but I was more thinking about what people actually do when you tell them "write like you speak." Most people I've seen then proceed to dump stuff onto the page and it's even worse.

The advantage of reading it out loud is (I'm guessing) that you process it with a different part of your brain. When you just read it, the words are your own and you don't process it the same way, whereas when you hear it the words in a sense sound external and it is easier to hear where it sounds awkward.


"... OUT LOUD."

Thomas Mann did that (among other authors). He used to read his work to his family. Just look, how complex and hard to read some of his later work still is. And how complex the sentences are structured.

It is no guarantee, if you don't also think simple and clearly. But it certainly helps.


Yes, clarity is not always the goal in writing, especially fiction. I can imagine Mann sitting down reading his drafts to his family, who are all staring blankly at the ceiling, anxiously awaiting the end.

I think this is more of a technique to help people recognize when what they have written is bad. All too often do I get a student who is perfectly well spoken and who has obviously edited their work turn in something that is a mess. When you point out mistakes, they are usually like "wow, how the hell did I overlook something like that?"

It can be hard to recognize that something we wrote is bad, because we know internally what it's supposed to say. Something about the verbal and auditory processes in our brains seem to help bypass that though. It's by no means the only thing needed, just helpful.


Yep, if you don't read it out loud you self edit/ignore things in your head that become painfully obvious when you read it aloud.


'read what you have written OUT LOUD'

This right here. Anything I've written is read out load, and it's astonishing how many unclear sentences, head smashing obtuseness and general rubbish this picks up.


stream-of-consciousmess ;)


> If you've ever read a verbatim transcript of an interview or conversation, you'll know that actual speech is anything but clear

When I go to conferences and sit in the audience, I type transcripts in real-time. I somewhat agree with you, but I have some other evidence that I don't know what to do with:

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/

I have found that some people are amazingly well spoken. Absurdly well spoken, as if they specifically chose words so that I could transcribe and type them more easily. Matt Corallo has been really easy to type:

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/mit-bitcoin-expo-2015/matt...

For comparison, gmaxwell is more difficult to transcribe because of compressed deeply parenthetical spike bursts:

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/gmaxwell-bitcoin-selection...

and I remember jgarzik gave me lots of trouble recently during his talk:

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/scalingbitcoin/issues-impa...

For more comparison, here was an impromptu sit-down session with a few (high-energy) friends:

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/scalingbitcoin/snarks/

Great results abound when making authoritative statements. I find that I sound the most elegant for hours after I am done with some 10 hour high-concentration programming session. I attribute this to paying more attention to the purpose of communication, whether to transfer knowledge or achieve some other goal, and that good writing/speech is very similar to good programming.

And I have low tolerance for communication when the epistemology is all wrong....


Generally speaking, people who give talks have them prepared beforehand. They practice speaking it, to make sure that it's clear and understandable. So to say that it's easy to write a transcript for a planned talk isn't really saying anything. It's already been written, and writing the transcript of the presentation is just a rewrite. Not all talks are prewritten, but almost all of the good ones are.

I'd also like to note that presentations are very dissimilar to conversations, and some interviews. Conversations are at least a two-directional flow of information (more directions with more people), whereas the bulk of presentations are a one-way flow of information.


Even if they're not "prewritten", they have generally been prepared. For example, if I give a talk, I'll at least have made (mental or written) notes on what points I want to make and in what order.

When I'm in a natural conversation, the list of points I want to make is made up on the fly and is usually quite fluid (changes back and forth as I or the other people talk as a function of what is being said).

That is, talks, even if not already "written", are not the same as natural conversation at all.

I also find that really great impromptu speakers actually do speak more coherently in their natural conversations too. I assume because they're used to pre-editing what they're saying in their heads as they talk.


I don't consider myself a great speaker by any means, but yes, I do find myself pre-editing my sentences when I give a talk. Prewritten talks are no exception. I always need to edit them on the fly to suit the audience and the context.

If natural speech were a modern programming language, prewriting would be analogous to compiling to bytecode. Then you JIT compile it again when you speak. You rarely go directly from source code to machine language, perhaps because there's so much diversity among the "machines" (humans).

Heck, I even "transpile" my talks from time to time. The last time I gave a presentation, my paper was written in English but I had to present it in Korean! Needless to say, that wasted a lot of brain cycles.


Other replies mention the atypical preparedness of presentation text; but I have noticed what you describe in normal life, in normal conversation: some people do indeed seem to speak as if they'd had a chance to revise the sentences / paragraphs in advance. Is it that they care more, and a lifetime's practice has resulted in that kind of automatic organization?


Quite often, I'll have run through a whole series of variations on the probable avenues that a conversation or meeting could take. If you deal regularly with the other party in the conversation, you can often predict with pretty good accuracy what they are going to say. Most spoken communication is just trudging through the same well-established ruts, and throwing out the same sound-bite loops.

Eventually you get to the point that you know that when subject X comes up, Bob is going to deploy his well-worn chestnut that you've heard 147 times before, and you can damn-near repeat it word-for-word.


> Most spoken communication is just trudging through the same well-established ruts, and throwing out the same sound-bite loops.

You're hanging out with the wrong people. Or something.

> when subject X comes up, Bob is going to deploy his well-worn chestnut that you've heard 147 times before,

You should stop hanging with Bob. There are other people out there who have real conversations about what's going on with them, their view of current events, their new ideas for what ought to be done, their new inspirations. . .

I think the more likely and plausible explanation for why some people sound more prepared when speaking is because... they simply are better at it. They've practiced thinking through things, and are adept at putting thought into words. They've developed the think-and-communicate muscle, through lots and lots of practice, and now they can use that muscle with greater effectiveness than your average bear.


This Pico Iyer TED talk is a great example of how a talk can be so well crafted, rehearsed, and mapped, and yet still so conversational and welcoming. Almost a inversion of PG's piece — type as you talk and then talk as you typed.

https://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home?language=e...


This is very interesting. Just by skimming the texts, there's a noticeable difference. Matt's paragraphs generally start with "So I..." or "So you/we.." and it's possible to grasp the overall flow of the logic even by looking the beginning of each paragraph, whereas gmaxwell/jgarzik often starts with statements like "This is..." or "I think..." where the relation to previous paragraphs is less clear. Thanks for sharing this.


Depends what sort of conference for a formal one most of the speeches will be planed before hand and speakers will be trying for rhetorical effect and its not natural speech.

And some experienced speakers will have their speaches written out and timed.


Have you never given a presentation in your life? They are practiced and prepared beforehand.


This is a very good point, because when you're talking, like you'd talk to another person I mean, your turn at speaking generally flows into a single large sentence, which is typical turn-taking behaviour, because in a conversation the other person is always looking for cues that it's their turn to speak, and so you ah have to keep going even if it means you've wandered away from your original point.


Which is very interesting, because, in many cases you'll find people who are presenting to large groups, say, an auditorium full of people, or even just a conference room of willing attendees, in a situation in which the speaker is expected to speak at some length , and it is understood and to be expected that the audience will remain silent in order to receive the message, even in those cases, speakers will continue to use the your-turn, my-turn habits of speech, with the blank-filling um's and ah's and so on.


I listened to a guy from Toastmasters once, and at the start of the speech he said, "Will you please pull me up if I say 'um' or 'ah' at any point?" And he didn't, over the course of an hour or so. The trick, apparently, is to speak deliberately and know what you're going to say before you say it.


I see what you did there, you wrote how you talk :)


If you think of the "um"s, "uh"s, and doubling-back in speaking as the equivalent of pausing and pressing backspace in writing (or crossing-out in pen-and-paper writing), then I think the advice to "write how you talk" becomes even more direct.


An example of pseudo-spoken tone from the article: "The fact that this seems worthy of comment shows how rarely people manage to write in spoken language."

That's a simple phrase to read, but I'm pretty sure it would fly right over my head if somebody dropped it in casual conversation.


I think this is an important point: most of what people verbally say is redundant noise, because in speech you have to account for people who only started really listening partway, or who need something said repeatedly in different ways to understand it. In text, the reader is free to stop and think about something, or just go back and re-read. This means that even if you're writing conversationally, it's easy and not too burdensome to compress long, rambling sentences into succinct ones that convey the same information.


I don't think Paul Graham meant ramble, use "uhs" and "ums" and and expletives as you and other commenters have said.

I think the point was to use common and simple wording so that people can understand without doing a lot of work. People have a lot more practice understanding common and simple words. So it's much easier for them to read, no matter how smart they are.

I think this was pretty clear in PG's essay, but the headline probably threw people off. Maybe he should have said it differently, such as "Make your writing as simple as your speech."


It's not just word choice, but style that matters.


I definitely agree.


One of the best (and incidentally, very recent) illustration of your point was seen an AMA by Bill Murray [1]. The Reddit mod was simply transcribing sentences as Bill was saying them. Soon after, /u/BillMurrayTranslator (some random guy) rewrote the exact same content in a more coherent, punctuated and editorialized manner. The difference in readability is stark! Bill's answers were quite hard to understand because of their stream of consciousness nature.

Reading these two types of writing side by side (as in this ama), convinced me that 'write as you talk' can seem quite odd.

The advice does work fantastically well with people who feel compelled to use very formal language to make their point. In those instances, Write like you talk could mean: write in a simple way.

[1] https://m.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/3pommg/looks_like_im_bi...


"The Reddit mod was simply transcribing sentences as Bill was saying them."

To clarify, it's widely accepted it was a Reddit admin, /u/808sandhotcakes, that was responsible for the original transcription of Bill's responses.

As has been pointed out in your child posts, the top level responses have since been edited and have improved drastically.

The Admin's username has also been removed from the OP.

To give a better idea, check this archive.is of before the edits. [1]

>Uh yes I know Tom, we called him co back then cause he was a hipster, I sent someone looking for Co looking for him years ago, this person found him and he was running for office, the person I sent was not someone your father wanted to be affiliated with while running a campaign, he was a funny guy if you're his kid you're probably funny too. Tell your Dad to lay low, his past is gonna catch up with him.

>Uh, yes, I know Tom. We called him "Co" back then, cause he was a hipster. I sent someone looking for Co looking for him years ago, this person found him, and he was running for office. The person I sent was not someone your father wanted to be affiliated with while running a campaign. He was a funny guy. If you're his kid, you're probably funny too. Tell your Dad to lay low, his past is gonna catch up with him.

The contrast between this AMA and his previous one is stark.(The previous one [2] handled by the well loved admin /u/chooter, who was recently fired.)

One should write in an audience appropriate way. The Bill Murray AMA was written by someone with no real understanding of written English.

[1] https://archive.is/yBqcH#selection-2809.0-2809.408

[2] https://www.reddit.com/comments/1vhjag


The link you submitted seems to work for mobile only, for some reason I couldn't open it from my computer, so I give the non mobile version below [0].

Apart from that, I did compare a few of the original answers from Bill Murray and with their translated versions, but I don't think the translator makes it clearer, he just added some punctuation and some context (pause, laughs, etc.).

[0] https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/3pommg/looks_like_im_...


Although, the OP says "edit- top level responses edited for grammar and punctuation" so it was probably a more marked difference before.


If you just went to that thread 15 hours ago, you did not read the original answers. It was vastly different before it was edited. It was unreadable for me.

68 words in the opening sentence for one of the replies.


So, "write like you want to talk"?


I think this would be sound advice in this context. "Write like you see yourself talking when imagining your speech".


It is also good to note that what kind of editing your brain does- the standard that people accept for what clear speech is supposed to sound like, what they strive for and hear in their heads- changes over time. There is more than one way to clean up the exact same actual speech stream, and the cultural norms for the correct way to do it shift.

This is made most obvious when comparing dialogue between new and old movies (good ones, anyway- ones that had good popular contemporary reviews; comparing what people at the time considered badly-written stilted dialog tells you nothing). Everybody knows that preferred writing styles change, but movies document the changes in what people consider to be "normal sounding" speech over even relatively short periods of time (a few decades).


It's funny you mention this, because pg himself has a bunch of filler words when he speaks. See random video of him here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lcp0uZsY7k.


Perhaps "talk like you write" could be better advice for some people, depending on how they write.

That said, "um and ahh" for filler is still vastly better than "like".


> brains seem to edit

I'd love to hear from NLP experts on speech vs writing from a machine's perspective.

> not a representation of natural communication so much as an idealised version

Written language lacks stresses and intonation. I wonder if the written dialect attempts to fill in this gap, and whether tonal languages idealize their speech differently.

> conversational tone can improve formal writing about complex topics

Feynman's lectures are a nice instance of this.


Spoken language is pretty diverse. The data set we've been using for spoken language understanding is a corpus of telephone conversations between strangers about an assigned topic. Naturally, this contains a lot of ums and uhs!

But spoken language about technical topics and difficult ideas tends to also be disfluent.

For a long time computational linguists were using algorithms that performed okay on written language but poorly on spoken language. Specifically, they used algorithms that weren't linear-time in the length of the input. This meant that the input had to be pre-segmented, so you had to run another model before the parser, and then accept the errors from the previous model.

Now that we've got linear-time algorithms that are doing everything jointly, it's not so bad. We just need to get a bit better at using intonation features, and parsing lattice input so that we can deal with the recognition errors.

Mostly, it's a relief not to have to deal with the really tortured language often found in journalese. News reports are written really weirdly.


I have an interesting anecdote relating to this, one of my best friends told me the other day that she says the word "probably" as probly and even listening closely to what she says with that in mind it's still difficult to hear anything other than "probably"


I agree with the above.

Unless we're a Vidal or Buckley, people tend to wander in thought as they speak. It does not come with much forethought. It's typically just a messy stream of consciousness (and not in the Welty sense).

So while overwrought writing can be stilted, "writing like you talk" is just as much a put-off, it often comes off as if there was little forethought and work put into the writing.


So true. I've gotten in the habit of writing copious notes during meetings, and write everything down verbatim. When I first started doing this, I was astounded to find how disorganized most individuals train of thought appeared to be.

What's really interesting is our ability to comprehend the jumble that comes out of our mouth. On one hand, it's impressive what our brains can do to process this jumble, on the other, totally depressing how inadequate we are at stringing together oration.


Venkatesh Rao's description of a "writer/thinker" split is interesting and relevant here too.

I agree with the spirit of pg's essay, but I also agree that there's probably more to it.

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-tips-for-advanced-writer...


I like to dictate my writing for a first draft. It helps with the whole write like you speak issue, but it also helps you speak more clearly. You get better at conveying your ideas.


Somehow you managed to miss the point entirely. The point is not "use bad grammar, slang, and swear words." It's just "don't put on airs!" That's it! Not putting on airs means: don't use jargon if the meaning of your sentence doesn't call for it, and don't use awkward turns of phrase to make yourself sound smarter. That's easier said than done, but it goes a long way toward making your writing easy to understand.


"put on airs" - what exactly does that mean?

These airs, where would one obtain them? And on what would one put these airs? on what?


Fair enough :) Writing well is hard, and I make plenty of my own mistakes.


What you just wrote illustrates perfectly your point.


This is especially interesting, as pg uses a very creative variation on "Um"[1] (as a method of making people focus on the poigniant/funny statement he just made). I'm not sure if this is a case of someone weaponizing their verbal tic, but I think pg should probably add it to his actual writings.

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii1jcLg-eIQ


This is good advice, but I disagree with his example. The entire paragraph reads[0]:

>The Upper Palaeolithic cave art of Europe was a tradition that lasted for perhaps 20,000 years and it will always be rightly described as primitive. But it is upon those anonymous artists' shoulders — giants' shoulders — that later masters like Picasso were able to stand. The mercurial Spaniard himself declared: 'After Altamira, all is decadence.'

Sure, for maximum clarity, Neil Oliver could have written more like he talks. But this paragraph is clear enough and written in an appealing style. It might not be Paul Graham's favorite style, but that doesn't make it bad writing.

I also think the sentence he picked is particularly unconversational, which is misleading for two reasons. One, it makes Oliver's style sound more opaque and formal than it actually is. Two, even in a more conversational style than Oliver's, you're occasionally going to include something that's a step more formal.

I think Graham knows this, albeit unconsciously. Would he really say "Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas" in a conversation? Probably not, but it reasonably passed his read aloud test because it's a good distillation of his point.

[0]: https://books.google.com/books?id=1Uk0AgAAQBAJ&printsec=fron...


I actually like this a lot. He uses a conversational/informal style and it almost flows like a rehearsed piece of conversation:

> it will always be rightly described as primitive.

> . But it is upon those anonymous artists' shoulders — giants' shoulders — that

He starts a sentence with But and puts dashes in for pause effects. Does he go a bit purply in his prose towards the end? Sure. I think that is the difference between writing and conversation though. You can write well, explain your points and have a simple flow using the a comfortable tone. e.g. not forcing absurd 10cent works into your works and being unnecessarily complex. However, you can use a sentence structure like:

> The mercurial Spaniard himself declared: 'After Altamira, all is decadence.'

For dramatic effect. Author departs from his clean flow to qoute somebody who speaks differently than himself. And it looks like the mercurial spanaird talks funny which is underscored by the authors' change in tone.


Besides, the author probably talks like that in real life, too, so he's already doing what PG says he should do. When you study ancient stuff a lot, it becomes part of your personality. You acquire a lot of choice quotes that over time become part of your everyday vocabulary.

I love it when historians mix archaic language into their everyday speech for dramatic effect! It's vastly different from when ordinary people clumsily try their hand at archaism. Coming from someone who actually knows what they're saying, it feels so much more authentic and appropriate.


I agree with your analysis of the first sentence, but the second still sounds awful and stilted to me! I'd rewrite as:

> >The Upper Paleolithic cave art of Europe was a tradition that lasted for perhaps 20,000 years and it will always be rightly described as primitive. But it is upon those anonymous artists' shoulders — giants' shoulders — that later masters were able to stand. Picasso himself declared: 'After Altamira, all is decadence.'

What's the point of "mercurial" or "Spaniard" being included? Irrelevant detail that, frankly, trips my tongue up when reading (and when my tongue trips, I stumble slightly even while silently reading).


Yes, and furthermore Neil Oliver actually does speak like this[0], as many Scottish people will be able to instantly make fun of. [1]

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUutdlJ7V3M

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afRE3RwLwaE


Thanks for providing the full context. I'm a bit surprise pg would pick a rather flimsy example. Fishing for flamboyant prose? Why not pick on a tabloid.

There's a ton of implicit communication that happens in-person that is hard or impossible to duplicate in writing, even through prose. Prose serves a purpose, and I'm surprised this essay doesn't grapple with that issue.

I think what pg really meant to write is something more like: be clear, get to the point, and be authentic. If the only way to do that were to write in a conversational tone, I think we'd quickly become bored and disinterested in writing itself.


> It might not be Paul Graham's favorite style, but that doesn't make it bad writing.

and what is wrong with mixing a little poetry, or poetric license anyway, into regular prose?

Written language is different than spoken language.

But Graham's guideline is generally good advice.


This is fairly popular advice, and I heard it at least a half dozen times at my (liberal arts) college. That's not to dismiss this post because its takeaway is commonplace: I agree with the sentiment. However, I think it's important to embrace the full implication of its thesis:

Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas.

Athletic clothing is comfortable, it is functional, and it traffics in convenience.

But people wear clothes for aesthetics, for culture, for dozens of reasons.

When you optimize for, say, being as easily digestible by as many people as possible, you may reduce your nuance or your aesthetic or whatever. And words like mercurial tend to have unique depths and distinctions that keep them being used by the Neil Olivers of the world. That's a good thing.

(As a minor aside that doesn't detract from his point: You'd feel like an idiot using "pen" instead of "write" in a conversation with a friend. Really? Some people just feel more comfortable in suits than in sweatpants. There's nothing wrong with that.)


Exactly, formality can be part of the message, and sometimes less is a bore.

There is certainly a place for more formal language at times, if only to communicate intent and add a bit of pepper to the writing. For example Will Self would not be Will Self without using ten words where one would do, nor would Poe or Henry James (who I suspect spoke much as he wrote).

I think what pg is objecting to here though is probably people putting on airs by attempting a more formal register than they are comfortable with, and thus coming across as a little stilted and a little fake and obscuring their meaning rather than communicating it. This is a particular problem in art criticism, where postmodern art critics adopt a certain stilted, formal, and impenetrable language as a sort of shibboleth; the height of this style is probably someone like Camille Paglia, who gives the impression of saying much about Art without saying much at all (IMO).

Of course you can also do the same by trying to be informal without being intimately acquainted with the particular usage you're trying to emulate, and it depends who you're talking to. What is appropriate (both in speech and in writing) depends on context more than we like to admit.


Quite. There is that ghastly put-on cutesy/folksy over-friendly style that a lot of startups use - which is every bit as stilted and ill-fitting as over-formality.


Articles in the New Yorker also tend to say a lot without saying much at all, from what I've seen. You don't need to spend 5,000 words and six 'next pages' telling the entire backstory of the people in question before making your first point.


I remember reading one of Isaac Isimov's biographies, where he mentions that one of the critiques of his writing is that it is too simple. His response -- that's the way it is supposed to be!


Beautiful quote on writing style from I, Asimov here:

https://books.google.com/books?id=mATFyeVI7IUC&lpg=PT324&ots...


Orson Scott Card made a similar point in one of the intros to Ender's Game.


In the same vein, if it helps your reader understand your point, use the most precise word that means what you mean to say and is easily understandable.

Synonyms have differences, and the additional depth is helpful in many circumstances - this is the whole point of scientific 'jargon'.

However, I don't think that conflicts with pg's overall point, perhaps just nitpicking his example. I do think that 'mercurial' has its uses.


Ooo... a new word! Hmmm... googling Mercurial... ((of a person) subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind.) Oh! like the metal mercury, how cool is that? Rich and Vivid :-)


"Write like you talk" is bad advice twice: It encourages rambling, which - unlike in a conversation - the reader has no means to interrupt, and it offers no clear rules to follow while writing. Orwell's six[1] are, in my experience, much more useful:

  (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which
      you are used to seeing in print.

  (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon
      word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright
       barbarous.
[1] https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm


Orwell wrote important and influential books but his actual writing was quite pedestrian - much more like a good journalist than a great literary stylist.

Thackeray, on the other hand, broke all of those rules (except perhaps the last) in almost every sentence in "Vanity Fair", and yet I know which I find the more pleasurable to read. I've also never put much stock in this notion of the evils of the passive voice - which thing Orwell himself seemingly struggled greatly to avoid.


I'm a big fan of Orwell, and yes he "wrote like a good journalist," since he was a journalist. Some people would say the world's best :) Gotta say, I haven't heard a whole lot of people championing the passive voice! If you have an idea to communicate, it strikes me as strange that you would want to leave out information - which is my biggest problem with the passive voice. "Is rumored to be" is a shifty way a writer can avoid telling you who started the rumor. I find it depressing to read all the comments on this post. I hoped there would be more intellectual seriousness on HN, and I have big doubts about how mature a person can be if they haven't gotten over the desire to write like a grown-up, instead of actually conveying a point in a simple way. I'm not a Paul Graham fanboy, but he couldn't be more right in this case.


Here's a great piece from Geoffrey Pullum (fairly pre-eminent linguist) on the passive voice: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf

I think the discussion on this article has been very good, actually, and I'm not sure phrases like "intellectual seriousness" really add much to the debate.


"Intellectual seriousness" is a bad choice of words. Sorry, my irritation got the better of me. And to be more charitable to you, while I think writers should avoid the passive voice, I also don't believe there is any rule so important that one can never break it. The more important thing should always be to get one's point across.


That essay makes some good points. In my previous comment I was thinking mainly of sentences like "Mistakes were made."


Here's where I think pg is coming from:

1) you are going to be writing about something you know

2) you are going to be writing to "people like you"

3) you are going to be read by, maybe as a product of 1 and 2, people at your order of expertise.

Given these qualifications, it's always best to write in a conversational tone using words you would normally use.

With that in mind, going through your points:

(i) most people don't use metaphors that are predominantly seen in print in an conversation.

(ii) Tricky. I think this depends on the audience. Sometimes, used well, this leads to prose that flows better. I think a better rule would be: use the word that fits with the tone and content.

(iii) Agreed!

(iv) Yup. Few people use passive voice in conversations. Maybe the same ones who disregard (i).

(v) Again, this depends on your audience. Obviously, Orwell (or any mainstream-ish writer), would have a lower common denominator than your audience.

(vi) haha.

But, yeah, I like pg's suggestion because it is .. well.. more succinct: easier to remember 1 guideline than vi rules :)


> Few people use passive voice in conversations.

Where did you get that from? Passive voice is extremely common in conversations.

"He was acquitted of robbery" (passive) is probably more common than "The jury acquitted him of robbery" (active). "I was born in 1973" (passive) is much more common than "My mother gave birth to me in 1973" (active). "The X-Files was cancelled in 2002" (passive) vs. "Fox management cancelled the X-Files in 2002" (active). Even very colloquial phrases like, "The Cubs got wrecked in that series." Etc.

[Edit to expand/clarify examples.]


Passive voice is one of those things that really irks people for some reason, mostly because their grammar school teacher taught them so. It has a lot of legitimate uses, but the knee-jerk reaction it invokes in people is bizarre.

For instance, there are many cases where one would want to de-emphasize the subject, or cases where the tone should be "passive" in the sense opposite from "aggressive". If you are arguing with someone because you think they are wrong but don't want to put blame, you may want to say "It was wrong to do that" instead of "You were wrong to do that".

Another use of passive voice is for a certain dark style and more mysterious tone. A good example of this is "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times..."


None of the examples with "It was" are grammatically passive, though.

It's striking to check out section 3 of the Pullum paper ("Fear and Loathing of the English Passive") mentioned upthread by bshimmin. Pullum gives 22 (!) examples of people criticizing texts as being "passive" when they aren't.

Edit: Pullum mentions a purported "passive style" (which, if it really exists, among other things avoids directly mentioning individual human beings' responsibility for things that happen) distinct from the "passive voice", which might be part of what you're referring to here. But "it was..." isn't a passive-voice construction.


> "It was wrong to do that" instead of "You were wrong to do that"

Technically true, because it's passive. But still, you'd be using "It was wrong to do that" because it becomes impersonal, more than passive.


The example doesn't really change.

> "The code was broken" instead of "You broke the code" serves the same function.


What's the passive version of "you were wrong to do that"?


I still wouldn't be wrong: few people, not no people.

But, still all those examples seem more like a one-way broadcast/exceptions rather than a conversation or a start to a conversation rather than the body of one.

But maybe I should have said: few exploratory conversations?


I agree these rules are useful, but I will slightly counter with the fact that these rules are conditionally useful. I would adhere to all of these except in the limited contexts stylistically that can benefit. For example, some kinds of styles of novel writing can benefit from breaking most of these, however not in every passage. Again it goes back to know your audience and your goals.

If you want people to understand and consume your writing easily, than these rules are pretty good. They are close to what is taught in journalism school as well. Journalistic writing rules are quite useful for tech articles, blog posts, social media, etc., but less useful sometimes for more exciting creative writing. Sometimes rambling and using huge words is a style and a signature of a writer. The same writer might fail miserably writing like that writing a different story that needs a more to the point, simple style.


You're being too literal. "Write uh exactly um exactly like heh you talk" is terrible advice, but nobody would ever recommend that seriously. "Write like you talk" is excellent advice, and roughly the same thing that Orwell preached in his essays on language.


>(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it.

If possible to cut a word, cut it.

If possible, cut.

But of course "if possible" is implied, he wouldn't be advising you to do anything impossible, so just:

Cut.


You're misunderstanding "if possible" here. It means "if it can be done while conveying all that you need to convey, and saying all that you mean." "Cut" doesn't do that.


How about "Cut words out, when possible."?


Twain would be pleased.


I miss Mark.


Oh, if only scientific papers took that advice!


"To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice."

~ Christopher Hitchens


This seems much better advice.

I found the opposite of PG. I discovered that when I worked on talking the way I wrote, my speech became much better and more interesting.

Now, PG speaks off the cuff pretty well. So I suppose if people find you well spoken, it makes sense to try to write more like you talk. But if you write better than you speak, make your speech more like your writing.


  Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say)
This is Hitchens being cheeky as always! :)


The PG headline is really the first half of a larger sentence: Write like you talk, and try to talk in concise, plain language.

If you have trouble doing this, the Hemingway App might help. http://www.hemingwayapp.com/

There are a lot of problems with the way people write. Some writers are too writerly, some are trapped in journalese or legalese, most are too vague. But better than any -ese is being able to communicate complex ideas to intelligent outsiders in a shared, common language.

To do that, you have to think a lot about what your main points are, how they connect, and what your readers will probably misunderstand. Then you address that. You answer questions before they are asked.

Sure, there are other ways to write. I like a good dose of purple prose, or 19th-century Russian fiction. But it probably doesn't belong in a memo.

In the end, you shouldn't write like you talk, because as many others have said here, talking is messy. The real trick is to write in a way that makes people think you're talking to them. The writer finds tricks that make it seem like she's talking, even though speech has been translated to the page. Then the reader can hear your voice, and there's nothing getting in the way.


> Some writers are too writerly, some are trapped in journalese or legalese, most are too vague. But better than any -ese is being able to communicate complex ideas to intelligent outsiders in a shared, common language.

Agred. And this is something that is taught, rather than in-born. Most people pick up their writing skills in school, where big words and long sentences can give you better marks than a simple, heartfelt explanation.

It takes a long time and a lot of practice to shake this off.


Came here to recommend Hemingway. Even if you keep these values in mind, with a linter it's much easier to do.

I haven't yet found a Chrome extension which does Hemingway-esque linting on all text input fields, like Gmail or (god forbid) comment sections. Somebody (maybe me) should make this.


Completely agreed.

I know that when I try to make important points on the fly, I'm more than likely to ramble and not speak entirely eloquently, but it seems clear that what PG is saying is ultimately just "Don't confuse your reader by trying to sound to smart."


If you're going to do this, edit heavily afterwards.

Most conversation is pretty redundant. Because not everybody hears every word, it's acceptable to say things a couple different ways in order to make sure you're understood. That's less OK in an essay or email, because it's assumed you considered everything you wrote.

If you don't believe me, try transcribing an email instead of typing it. Simple transcriptions aren't good writing.


Especially with email I value brevity over "natural" language. I spend time editing my written communications so others don't have to waste time getting to the meat of the message.


It just depends upon your aims. If you're trying to convey an idea in hopes of transferring knowledge then yes -- write like you would talk to ease the others' cognitive load.

If you're a fantasy writer, it would get pretty drab pretty fast if you spoke to me like how most people speak to me. In fact, it'd be downright boring if you structured all dialogue between characters in such a manner. You need the pomp to make sentences glimmer or express significance.

I'm not sure what the thesis of this essay is since it starts out as "If you want more people to read what you write..." Well no, if you're a novelist, I wouldn't recommend this essay to you. And that's not just me being a pedant either; I think this whole essay is simply advice to CEOs who are trying to talk about their idea.

The thing that "comes over most people" is actually them trying to actually express their real selves, which often gets clouded in day-to-day interactions with others. The idea that you should just shut this off is nonsense and a barrier to increased creativity. You can write in a creative fashion while still maintaining a simple delivery. Just look at Larry Wall.


> If you're trying to convey an idea in hopes of transferring knowledge then yes -- write like you would talk to ease the others' cognitive load.

Even for transferring knowledge, it depends a lot on what knowledge you're trying to transfer, and to whom. In scientific writing, the more pop-science the goal of the article, the more conversational the style should be, and vice-versa. In a paper by someone in my field written for other people in the field, a pop-science conversational style isn't helpful, and would increase the cognitive load. In that case, I want clarity, precision, and accuracy, which is often helped by using a more specialized language.

This has been one of the main changes in science writing from earlier centuries. If you read 17th-century mathematics, it's actually trying to explain it all in a jargon-free conversational style, written as if you were having a parlor conversation about numbers. "Consider three whole numbers, such that the sum of the square of the first two equals the third", etc. This does not scale well and is error-prone.


> "Consider three whole numbers, such that the sum of the square of the first two equals the third"

I wouldn't say that in conversation. I'd say something like: "consider three integers, with a squared plus b squared equals c".

And in writing, I'd go for something like: "consider a, b, c ∈ ℤ, such that a² + b² = c". Which isn't far off.


Hemingway would disagree with you about novels.


Hemingway used simple language, not conversational style.


This reminded me of an interview of David Foster Wallace

"...here’s this fundamental difference that comes up in freshman comp and haunts you all the way through teaching undergrads: there is a fundamental difference between expressive writing and communicative writing. One of the biggest problems in terms of learning to write, or teaching anybody to write, is getting it in your nerve endings that the reader cannot read your mind. That what you say isn’t interesting simply because you, yourself, say it. Whether that translates to a feeling of obligation to the reader I don’t know, but we’ve all probably sat next to people at dinner or on public transport who are producing communication signals but it’s not communicative expression. It’s expressive expression, right? And actually it’s in conversation that you can feel most vividly how alienating and unpleasant it is to feel as if someone is going through all the motions of communicating with you but in actual fact you don’t even need to be there at all."

"Conversations with David Foster Wallace" (Literary Conversations Series, page 113

A big thing that pg seems to be unaware is that most of us are expressive, not communicative, when we talk. Stylistically, it's true that plain English is the way to go. However, the deeper problem lies in our (in)ability to communicate our thoughts, in writing or in speech.


I think this is rubbish advice.

I'd much rather we all spoke on first attempt like we write after thoughtful review.

I'm reminded of the (gradual) removal of all Latin from British legislation with a view to making it more 'accessible', at the obvious expense of the concise preciseness that the language afford: "with having changed the things requiring changing" is rather less economical than "mutatis mutandis".

In a slightly facetious sort of way, I also think the "thanks to .. for reading drafts of this" is rather amusing.


I was with you all the way up to your example, and then I didn't know what mutatis mutandis meant and I changed my mind.

It's obviously a good thing that normal people be enabled to understand as much as possible of the laws that govern them, even at the expense of a little wasted ink. (Unfortunately in British law being able to read the legislation often won't get you very far anyway, because of case law).


> "thanks to .. for reading drafts of this"

What's the Latin for that?


Ha! Mine's not strong enough to say, though I suspect it would only be 3-4 words ('with-thanks-to .. for-the-reading-of' if you see what I mean).

I didn't mean that sentence amused me for uneconomical English, but that it was funny to think about a piece titled 'write like you talk' going through multiple draft stages.


Why is that funny to you when he suggested putting your writing through draft stages to try achieve the "write like you talk" style?


Because when you talk you do not (and indeed cannot) do that.

(I would argue preparing a speech does not count, since you are then by definition talking like you have written).


The point is that your written text reads like someone talking. It makes sense to review the text for this aim.


"It seems to be hard for most people to write in spoken language. So perhaps the best solution is to write your first draft the way you usually would, then afterward look at each sentence and ask "Is this the way I'd say this if I were talking to a friend?" ..."

The trick that works for me is setting the font-color to be the same as the background color, blak on black for example. Then you can write without being able to go back and correct what you've written. With the result, that you will write almost the way as you speak. Requires touch typing though.

I even made a colorscheme for Vim for this and using it when writing in my diary or personal emails. Does wonders.


> Before I publish a new essay, I read it out loud and fix everything that doesn't sound like conversation. I even fix bits that are phonetically awkward; I don't know if that's necessary, but it doesn't cost much.

This is the key bit. It's not so much "write like you talk" and more "write like you could present it."

So much writing isn't accessible because the author misses this cardinal rule. Even the most dense, formal scientific writing can be made clearer if the author or editor reads it aloud and fixes the awkward parts.

I helped content editing for an academic journal back in the day. A big part of our jobs was helping the authors bring their voice out into the papers. A lot of writers, novice and expert alike, have an idea of what an "expert" in their field should sound like. The result is stiff and manufactured prose that too often ends up being inaccessible for anyone else.

But, as soon as you clue an author in on how their personal voice can come through an article, you see a shift in the quality and clarity of the work.

The articles, text books and other writing I learn the best from, and come back to, ultimately sound in my head as if the author and I are speaking aloud. It's the real differentiator in sounding like an amateur or an expert.


Seth Godin said something really similar, and I've drawn on it during periods of writer's block many times:

>No one ever gets talker's block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down.

Why then, is writer's block endemic?

The reason we don't get talker's block is that we're in the habit of talking without a lot of concern for whether or not our inane blather will come back to haunt us. Talk is cheap. Talk is ephemeral. Talk can be easily denied.


... I think I might have talker's block.


There is absolutely such a thing as talker's block. It's called stuttering and it's a huge problem for some people.

Edit: I am not being facetious.


No one that ever went into marketing, maybe.


Here's a transcript of a Paul Graham speech.

http://genius.com/Paul-graham-lecture-3-counterintuitive-par...

So yeah, it's conversational in that he uses words like "noob" and "dude" and "bullshit". And yes, Google finds examples of his written works that use these words too.

But not everyone talks like Paul; perhaps Neil Oliver says things like "mercurial Spaniard" when he talks. It's kind of a nice feature of language that different people can use words differently. I'd rather Paul's examples were more of the corporate anti-speak variety like "maximizing synergies" and the like.


Agreed, it seems a really poor example used to make a fair point. I've never spoken to Neil Oliver personally, but on TV programmes he presents (Coast, etc.) he certainly uses flowery, poetic language. I don't think it's an act, it seems to come naturally to him, and it doesn't even clash with the presenters of other segments using a much more conversational tone.


The thing keeping me from agreeing with this is a qualifier. If it were "write like you talk when writing a X", where X could be substituted by tutorial, essay, lesson, etc. I think I'd be more inclined not to disagree here. But as it stands "write like you talk" cannot hold true across the board for the set of all writing goals that exists.

For example just watch any Tarantino film (or read the scripts), none of those characters talk like Tarantino does, I really would not want to watch a film where Uma Thurman walks around talking like him either.

Entire fields of writing would not exists if this statement were true: Poetry, Rap, Music, Marketing slogans ("Think Different"), many types of Comedy, etc.

EDIT: After a reread it looks he does suggest a qualifier, which is basically the general use case, which appears to be when "you want people to read and understand what you write" ie. informative essays, tutorials, emails that would occur in normal or every day communication situations, in which case I would agree.


PG is on to something here, which is that when most people try to make their prose better, they do it the wrong way. They make the language stilted, they add silly descriptions (such as "the mercurial Spaniard"). But, writing is different from speech, and you can learn techniques specifically to make your writing better. I highly recommend Steven Pinker's new book "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century" http://amzn.to/1LVI7eJ He has many concrete tips for improving your writing.


Paul Graham says "ummm" a lot. Luckily for us he doesn't write like he talks.

However, as others have said, the important thing is to write naturally and with clarity to get the message across.


If you can't say "mercurial Spaniard" to your friends, get new friends.


I find that if I need to use a word like mercurial it helps to add a four-letter word in proximity. It seems to aid digestion and thus cuts down on the commentary.


Certainly makes it more conversational. If I had a nickle for every time I've heard someone mutter "damn hg"...


I'd, gladly, substitute 'mercurial Spaniard' with an honest 'thank you'. To each their own when seeking friendship. Finding honest, humble friends, in my opinion, supersedes worldly, articulate fellows.


Honesty and vocabulary are not even loosely correlated. I agree that, given the choice between the two, you should choose honest, humble friends.

But if you're ever judging someone's worthiness of friendship because of their Flesch–Kincaid score (whether it's too high or too low!), you're doing it wrong.


Totally. I strongly disagree with the sentiment behind this article, which is odd considering how invaluable PG's advice usually is. I agree, nothing is more cringe than the misguided being overly-verbose. But dissauding the intelligent and capable from flexing their lexicon seems a little harsh. No Oscar Wilde or Robert Hughes? No thanks.


I've heard of this advice before [0] and I really think it's very useful advice. The goal isn't to make your writing literally spoken language and add every "um" and "ah" to your text, but to make it sound like someone might actually say that and that it sounds like natural speech. Like pg said, you wouldn't look at your friends weirdly for that. It's too easy to fall into the trap of trying to "decorate" your text with fancy words and language but as the example shows it feels artificial and alienates the reader. "Write like you talk."

[0] I think it was The Elements of Style, but you should go read that anyways because it's like K&R for English. There's a lot of examples of how the ear is much better at deciding which kind of language to use than you are.


If you're interested in becoming a better non-fiction writer, I can't over-recommend William Zinsser's "On Writing Well".


The only downside from reading and learning from this book is that you suddenly discover how much bad writing there is out there. ;)


I prefer to write like a man reading his powerpoint slides verbatim


Hueh! And that's how I naturally talk, too.


I had to look up "abstruse". I understood it's meaning from context, but wasn't sure if it was a portmanteau of abstract and obtuse, or an actual word. I've honestly never heard it in my life, and wouldn't stop someone saying it in a sentence, but it did stop my reading.

That made me wonder, does the fact that you sometimes have to listen to the spoken word over-estimate the impact the same words will have when written?


Abstruse - Big in the early 1800s according to the Google Ngram Viewer. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_e...


I use this word a lot in written critiques of way-too-clever segments of code at review time. Is there a better word to use instead in this situation?



It's good that PG didn't follow his own rule, otherwise we would have seen lots of "hmm" in his texts.


Sounds like you've heard him talk, then. Listen to where he says "umm", and the tone, and how the audience reacts: those are punctuation. In writing they become paragraph breaks or dashes or periods or commas or just strongly implied pauses after emphasized words.

It's an unusual way of punctuating things, but it seems to work okay.


I feel like us Swiss german people have a leg up here. We grow up writing anything personal in our dialect (a language that doesn't officially exist in written form), so we're used to writing like we talk. I wonder if it has an effect on our more formal, business-related writing.


Writing style is an aesthetic: It should suit the subject matter. I wouldn't want to read Tolstoy in the athletic clothing of ideas. The article feels like an overgeneralization.


> But just imagine calling Picasso "the mercurial Spaniard" when talking to a friend.

Consider the UK talking heads landscape is filled with individuals with a formidable command of the English language and pg's example comes across as very parochial and culturally ignorant.

Perhaps the essay should be 'Write like I talk', because I can't imagine how he would deal with an episode of QI with Stephen Fry holding forth.


> You don't need complex sentences to express complex ideas.

I think that precision and clarity are top concerns, but I don't conflate precision and clarity with simplicity or colloquialism. It's strictly true that you don't need complex sentences to express complex ideas, but I think that complex sentences provide more precision and clarity for complex ideas. As always, know your audience—I don't dispute that there will always be demand for simple digestible explanations of extremely complex ideas (e.g. theoretical physics).

> When specialists in some abstruse topic talk to one another about ideas in their field, they don't use sentences any more complex than they do when talking about what to have for lunch.

No, but I suspect that when they need the utmost precision and clarity, they write, and I suspect they write rather complex sentences. I saw a recent interview where a U.S Supreme Court justice mentioned that a huge portion of the work that goes on while deliberating a case is written, even though the justices are presumably on speaking terms and are quite capable of getting together and discussing things verbally.


Writing and talking are two very different things; it's bad advice to tell people to write as they talk. What makes talking and writing so very different are, at least, that:

1) Writing is a monologue; talking is a conversation. It's extremely rare one would talk in the form of monologue, except when giving a speech (and even in that case, the audience can usually ask questions).

2) When talking with someone, you have an immense array of non-verbal communication tools at your disposal (body language, eye contact, hands movements, speed of talking, pauses, etc. etc. etc.); in writing you have none of those, so everything you want to say, you have to write down.

Of course one should use simple, usual words, and (maybe) short sentences. But that has to be the oldest "tip" there is, in any language; there's even a .gov website dedicated to it: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuide...


One important difference between written and spoken language is that in the former case readers have the luxury of looking words up in a dictionary if they don't know them. When speaking, I'm careful to avoid words I suspect might not be understood by my listeners, but when writing [1] I generally use the most precise word I can think of, even if I expect some readers won't know it. (Indeed, for particularly tricky words I'll often link the dictionary definition myself.)

[1]: Examples include http://railstutorial.org/book, http://tauday.com/tau-manifesto, and http://learnenough.com/command-line-tutorial


On the contrary, I write because I don't talk so well. When I try to explain an idea in person, it usually comes out jumbled and half-formed. In contrast, when I sit down to write it out, it becomes much more clear on both sides of the conversation, even if it sounds a bit robotic.

Many people I know are exceptionally good at talking precisely and at length about their interests. Sometimes I envy them. I've always wished I could spin out my thoughts at their speed. But I don't really think in sentences. Many of my ideas exist in a sort of impressionistic cloud that takes a lot of energy to translate into conversation. In that sense, writing is as much a form of physical thought as it is a tool of idea dissemenation.

Nonetheless, it's an interesting exercise to record a first draft of a long essay into a microphone and mine it for intersting bits of prose. I should really try it more often!


Rather than taking writing advice from a programmer/venture capitalist, I recommend Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin, which will help ground any writing you might do in solid understanding of the "tools" you have available as a writer-- pace, grammar, the sound of words, and so forth


pg was a published technical writer and widely read essayist before Y Combinator.


which is perhaps why he can "write as he talks", and get away with it. He honed his craft. I work with a few programmers who write exactly as they talk, and it is littered with misplaced, dangling modifiers, and misspellings of things like "bury the lead" vs "bury the lede". The overall structure of arguments is haphazard too. Writing is hard, and I think the best way to get better is to write things that you _want_ to get taken more seriously than just as if you were talking.


He can get away with it because he founded the company that owns this well-respected discussion forum; he can say whatever he wants and people will at the very least read it. It is a credit to his hard work in the industry and the even harder industry of online community-building that the community surrounding Y Combinator can sniff out a truly bad essay like this one (especially difficult when so many of his essays are so excellent) and call him out on it as they generally have here.


PG is writing about getting people to read your nonfiction words. There is a place for other things, but he's talking about getting across a simple message, or making comprehensible more complex ones. In this, the advice, old as the hills, is sage and useful.

However, he omits to say that for other purposes, and other audiences - like this one, for example - if you want a nuances, thoughtful and colourful conversation, exploring more layers of meaning and implication, don't just use the ten hundred words people use the most often. https://xkcd.com/1133/ For if you do, once the XKCD comedy is over, we end up in a very dull Newspeak place indeed.


The best part of PG's advice is actually this:

> "After writing the first draft, try explaining to a friend what you just wrote. Then replace the draft with what you said to your friend."

This is the single best thing you can do to improve your communication skills, whether it be in writing or speaking. You're forced, out of courtesy and respect for your friend, to find the heart of the matter and you make it accessible.

(I'm currently in the middle of a 1,000,000 words stream-of-consciousness writing project, where I write exactly whatever's coming to my mind with as little editing as possible. I'm approaching 500,000 words now. It's pretty enlightening.)


In fairness, Neil Oliver talks like that all the time. If I were having a chat with him over a pint and he described someone as a "mercurial Spaniard", I wouldn't bat an eyelid.


Writing something (that is worth reading) in simple words is very hard. I believe that clear thinking plays a bigger role than semantics. When I am confused about a topic, I tend to write about it using complex arguments with long sentences and long words.

PG speaks and writes about startups with more clarity than most people. It is because his thinking on startups has greater clarity/conviction than most people. From my perspective, there seems to be no shortcut or semantic trick to clear writing.


The hardest thing about communication is clarity.


Yes. Clarity can creep up on you, and before you know it people can find your mistakes.


I've always written essays on ideas, but it wasn't until when I wanted to start publishing my writing on a blog that I found this idea true. Often times flowery language can sacrifice the clarity of your prose for attempting to appear more thoughtful than you are.

It's a lot like the Richard Feynman idea that if you can't distill something to a freshman lecture, you don't really understand it.[1]

[1]: Feynman, Six Not-So-Easy-Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time


Opposite to you, I'm often wary of conversational writing for exactly that reason: "Attempting to appear more thoughtful than you are". Especially a certain style of very breezy, self-assured conversational writing, that doesn't have any nuance or caveats, and hand-waves over anything too technical or specific.

Writers use that style to lay things out "like they really are". Let's boil down all this egghead complexity and get to what matters. No Harvard footnotes and overcomplicating things here, just straight talk. Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks are effective users of that style of writing. Quite a few bloggers are, too. It produces this strange style that on the surface seems thoughtful, but doesn't really have much there.


> Let's boil down all this egghead complexity and get to what matters.

You actually be may be right - this Gladwell style of writing is usually quite dangerous, because it does give the reader the sense that they really know what they are talking about, because they are "getting to what matters" (which is obviously very subjective).

The one thing I will argue though is that simple writing communicates the author's point more effectively than using flowerly language. The writer may be wrong, but at least I have much clearer sense of what they mean. By getting to "what matters", I find it easier to determine that they have "what matters" wrong. It is easier to refute the central thesis if the argument is presented without cruft, rather than an argument where flowery prose clouds the thesis.

I find that a mix of a conversational tone followed by technical details is usually the most effective for me. It's one of the reasons I appreciate mathematics within writing - it tends to be much more clear.

Although I do think you are right about Gladwell & Co, I am refering more to MBA-speak - which tends to use large empty words to convey ideas which pretend to have more depth than they really do.


Unless you are naturally a great speaker, writing like you talk is bad advice in my opinion. I, for example would sound erratic and incoherent if I wrote how I talked. I sometimes say things without thinking quite a lot. At least when I write, I can think about things more clearly, research what I am saying and get my facts straight.

I usually agree with most of what you say PG, but in this instance I think you're wrong. Still, it was an interesting read nonetheless.


Spoken language is backed by other optional channels of information:

* Audio: speaker controls tone, speed and emphasis

* Video: body language

* Feedback: listener can acknowledge reception or ask for repetition

Written language has more time to be composed and it usually has the possibility of being ammended before submission.

Therefore, I always considered natural the difference between spoken and written language styles.

On a less picky opinion: agreed, complex ideas should not be written in complex language.


This whole idea and article leave me speechless (sic).

Talking and writing are two different mediums. Never heard of Marshall MacLuhan?

I curse a lot, at home, where I live alone. As soon as I step out the door I talk differently to my neighbors. I also adopt a different voice when I visit my family in another state. And then another when talking to co-workers.

So which of those should I write in?

Try putting "fucking" in the HN search bar. The top article I get is "Fucking Sue Me" with 689 points. Great.

I can't begin to express how irritating it is to read such articles/blog posts with "fucking" all over the text, even thought at home I probably say that word 10-20 times a day. But I'm not writing that for others to read.

And then we have this gem from PG:

"Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas."

Really? If I talked like that to my friends or co-workers they'd be laughing at me for days.

To "write like I talk" I'd say: "what an arrogant fucking stupid shit statement."

Good bye HN.


Bye! All the best.


"Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas" The irony in this sentence from the article is breathtaking.


Do you mean because it's a great sentence in the context of this essay (maybe the best one in it), but you judge that you couldn't get away with saying it verbatim in conversation?

(If you were explaining the idea in this essay?) Or please explain.


I actually love the sentence but I wouldn't expect it in spoken english. (That part is ironical in the sense that it goes against the core of the article.. Seems like an exception that proves the rule). Written word gives the reader more time to absorb the content than spoken word and hence I feel it is OK to use metaphorical language to make the point and make the reading experience delightful. But Paul's point is well taken that it's better not to use flowery language for most of the time. It takes a lot of skill to not go overboard with that thing.


Yes, you make a good point. Also, since the reader can glance up and down the page, you don't have to repeat parts you have just stated very clearly, to make sure they're still with you, as you might while you talk. (You can do it briefly however.) In all, I expect my books to sound quite different from spoken conversation, for a variety of reasons.


I often keep revising until a text-to-speech program is able to read my writing in a way that sounds natural. Following that approach led to great results in university writing courses and, recently, got me through the process of writing and officiating a wedding.

I share this because many of the comments respond to the "write like you speak" advice with statements similar to "I don't speak well, so 'write like you talk' won't work for me". We spend every day of our lives consuming spoken language and reading written language to ourselves and, as a result, we are able to recognize speech that sounds clear and well spoken. Even if you struggle to speak improvisationally, listening to what you've written can help to evaluate the understandability and flow of your writing.


Depends on the tone that you want to set. For a blog etc I think conversationalist tone is fine. Even fast design docs can benefit from a conversationalist tone. Trying to write a big technical design doc w/ that tone wouldn't fit though IMO so you have to evaluate case by case.


I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Warren Buffett – he's a great 'write like you talk' role model. He explains complex ideas in a folksy, down to earth way. I studied 50 years of his annual letters, and there's probably 13 or 14 techniques he uses to make people read what he writes. (If you're interested, my short book Write Like Warren is free on Leanpub: https://leanpub.com/writelikewarren)

Edit: Dropbox link – https://www.dropbox.com/sh/um4djdcdb5isw6y/AAAzF6Xm-PGrkJT3Z...


I agree with pg, but I do think he could be more open minded to critical theory kind of stuff in the humanities. Yeah a lot of it is truly terrible to read, just following some weirdly abstract chain of logic that leads nowhere... but some of it is actually pretty enlightening or at least makes you think about things more critically, in ways that are ultimately useful. For me the good stuff are the thinkers fleshing out the position that Hegel introduced, which arguably is still the shadow that philosophy lives in. I'm CS, not humanities, but even so I see a lot of connections between developing philosophy and improving society, and a lot of these contemporary thinkers blend in philosophy of mind which could be useful for AI.


Funny, I just wrote "The Out-Loud-To-Your-Friend-Constraint For Writing" -- http://expost.padm.us/outloud (It's kind of self-indulgent musing on the idea of constraints for writing.)

And for customer support we call this the BFF Heuristic -- http://blog.beeminder.com/curtain

Excerpt: "If you read what you've written to a user out loud and it's possible to tell that it's not being spoken to your best friend, rewrite it. No exaggeration -- I treat that as a hard rule. It also helps get replies out quicker, once you're used to it."


This is really great advice and I meant to hit tbe up arrow friend, but I'm not sure which arrow I tapped and now I can't see or correct it :/

I really like the idea of the BFF heuristic, but I also think people should try to read writing, especially emails, as though they are coming from a BFF too! I've seen time after time where a friend reads an email, and each time they reread it theh get more angry, but when I look at it there's no offense to be found. If you have a negative opinion of somebody its easy to read everything theh write as a personal attack


Absolutely. In fact, that's the next piece of advice in that blog post. Excerpt:

"The best-friend heuristic has another benefit: If a user is ever frustrated or annoyed or hostile, put on rose-colored glasses and willfully reinterpret their tone as helpful and constructive -- something your friend would say because they genuinely want to help you improve -- and respond with the appropriate tone of gratitude."


Write like you think, not like you talk.

I do not talk like I think. Something is broken in that pathway. I'm better at writing. I've watched my son, who has trouble writing, express himself for papers via Dragon Dictate. Literally "write like you talk". And it is a mess. Stream of consciousness, betting on the reader picking up social cues, etc.

It is rare to find someone who can both write and talk with the same words and phrasing.

Although I do agree with the post in the sense of "don't stilt your prose". Don't adopt someone else's written voice, or a perceived style. (If you have the skills to do that, you have the skills to write better...so do that instead.)


How about documentation? I was thinking about this the other day, as I was documenting an api, and I was writing as if I was speaking, explaining how I thought about the problem rather than just the end-point details.

How do people feel about this.

Here's an example, but I didn't push the updates I made yesterday. https://github.com/favor/it

When I wrote for the high school paper, people always commented on how my writing was as if I was just having an conversation with them, so I've always tried to write that way, but I'm not sure it works for all formats.


The linked documentation bounces between using 'I' and 'you' as subjects for examples. Get rid of the references to yourself in the docs -- the documentation should be neutral. Take the reader's perspective if a subject is required. In day to day business like setting development priorities or responding to issues on Github, you can use 'I'.


thanks for the feedback, I just wasn't sure about tone in docs, it's the first time I've really had to document something like this for public consumption. I will redo it.


I like this sort of conversational writing style and it's my preferred style as well. But it's not actually much like natural speech. Anyone who's tried transcribing a recording of a conversation knows that they need to be cleaned up quite a lot to be readable. We don't actually talk in essay format.

Writing this way takes practice and probably a lot of reading as well to understand what you can get away with. People don't start out just knowing how to do it. Many people's native dialects are pretty far away from this style, so "write like you talk" wouldn't have the same results for them.


Like pg, I'd recommend you read your writing out loud to yourself. Not read it back to yourself, but literally read it out loud. I find this to be, by far, the easiest way to catch awkward turns of phrase and the like.

Jargon and highfalutin words should also be avoided whenever possible. For instance, if you have the choice of using either "abstruse" or "obscure," I recommend choosing "obscure" every time. Plain-spoken English ftw.

(I also find it wonderfully ironic that pg chose such an obscure synonym for "obscure" to represent the word obscure. bravo.)


I think it always depends on what your intention of communication is. Like it is said in the article. Most of the time you want to communicate to others what you are thinking. The simpler the better. I guess there is a similarity to writing code. Your machine can only handle exact commands for communication. But in human-to-human interaction there is more. Sometimes you want others to start thinking about something. Put an image in their head. Draw a comparison to let them think of the bigger picture.I dont think for that purpose spoken language is always the best way.


More useful would be "talk like you write".

The best speakers are the ones who are best at that because of the mental discipline it imposes: no uh, er, ah or pauses, just grammatically correct sentences, all the time.


The crux of this argument was explored with more eloquence and substance by Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language[1].

I also agree with some of Orwell's critics, that these rules only hold water for pursuasive and/or [mildly] polemic writing, which is largely the style of tech blogging. Personally I would like to see more tech writing in the Joycean tradition.

1: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Lan...


I think a lot of people are missing the point. The point isn't to be redundant and write in verbatim transcriptions. The point is to speak simply, as most people would out loud. Communication is about getting your point across.

A lot of people will write in a very formal "I am fluffing up my school essay" style which distances the reader, makes the topic more boring, and in my opinion actually makes the writing harder for most people to comprehend. You have to pause and think as opposed to just naturally getting through what you're being told.


"And it's so easy to do: just don't let a sentence through unless it's the way you'd say it to a friend."

Well no, it is very hard to write a text in "spoken language". This has been analysed by many writers, and the master of this operation in French language is Céline. He says that a lot of minute tweaking is required in order to produce the effect of spoken language in the reader's mind.

And this has not very much to do with removing the "litterature" from one's script, which is obviously much easier.


At first I thought of a talk as in presentation. That would be funny advice considering how terrible speaker he is (which is a shame because it's just the form that's bad, not the content). But going off from that, I think people tend to talk like that in general conversations and it only stands out in presentations.. or on a paper. So not the best advice in my opinion. What I would take from it is to just not overdo it when you are writing.


I found a very useful tool for writing clearer: http://www.hemingwayapp.com/


“Any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like a news robot but, in fact, sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would.” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/fashion/npr-voice-has-take...


A quite common way of saying in Italy is: "Parla come magni", which literally means "Speak the way you eat" [1], and it is used in conversations to mean exactly what Paul says, to "keep it simple".

[1]: http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/parla-come-mangi.1975...


Perhaps a reason why this works so well is due to most people's way of subvocalizing[1] material that they read.

If you're saying an article out loud in your head as you read it, then it sure does make sense for it to sound like an actual voice is saying it!

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subvocalization


He talks as if fiction and all kinds of literature don't exist, as if writing is only useful for conveying advice and commentary. This particular kind of writing might suit him well but this is not how it works in general. His idea that only "poetry" and some "bogus end of humanities" need complex prose is narrow. Also formal reports are more formal than usual for a reason.


I wish I could talk like I write. When I have a lot to talk about, I have a hard time not jumping around and end up being a little incoherent.


For general day to day stuff we all write, yes I agree. Hate reading emails and articles with a lot of unnecessary jargon. However, Writing- as in writing fiction,poetry,drama etc is an art. Just like a great painting, it is complex and it gives people an idea of the great mind of the author and what he thought of the book from his perspective.

Imagine war and peace written in spoken language.:(


Well "if truth was self evidence, eloquence wouldn't be needed."

Most of the time, we should write simply, but there are many times when we should be more colorful.

Also the fact that we must choose simple writing is a shortcoming and a lack of proper education. If the only word I know to express a romantic feeling is "love," well that is going to seriously limit me.


> Here's a simple trick for getting more people to read what you write: write in spoken language.

Speaking of doing what you preach: stop adding manual <br> in your articles, it makes them unreadable on mobile and wide monitors and it basically displays a total ignorance of how the web is supposed to work (let readers control how your articles appear to them).


He's only using <br> for paragraph breaks. The thing that makes the article look strange on mobile/wide monitors is probably the part where it's inside a fixed-width table cell.


"How the web is supposed to work" changes every five seconds. <br> is one of the oldest tags in HTML. Maybe it's wrong this year. I remember the year when Tables were wrong, too.


The point remains that you should let the browser reflow the text based on the width of the browser.

<br> makes this impossible.


To the contrary, I explicitly do not write the way I talk; they are very different mediums! Each is better suited to communicate different things / emotions.

Writing gives me the freedom to edit, iterate and polish; something speech cannot do.

I love both writing and speech/presenting - do not be reductionist and reduce writing to mere "written conversation".


I think you are taking the article too literally.

It's not that you must say something orally, use a computer automatic transcript and publish that, with all the errors and fillers.

You should edit it heavily to fix errors and increase clarity, but the style should be like something you would say oraly. An uninformed reader must feel that it's just the transcript of an informal talk.


Paul Halmos in How to Write Mathematics says: “A good attitude to the preparation of written mathematical exposition is to pretend that it is spoken. Pretend that you are explaining the subject to a friend on a long walk in the woods, with no paper available; fall back on symbolism only when it is really necessary.”


I would say this is true, because whenever i read a PG essay, i think of his voice, thinking his talks. His uniqe voice, tonality and speed of spoken language into his writings, which in turn helps me to better understand what he syas. I always wanted to hear PG essays from his voice. Like an Audible for PG essays.


I understand where this is coming from. All the same I find its devaluation of the variation of language one can naturally access when writing both dangerous and simpleminded in its utilitarian assumptions. It's a strawman argument. Writing is a creative act and not simply a matter of communication.


I think that, like, um, when you... when you write things like, uh, you know, fantasy novels or, uhhh.. things that are literature, that you should probably ignore this advice.

On the other hand, if you're writing nonfiction, with the goal of conveying information effectively, then this is probably good advice.


Considering that communication can be just as much about what you say as how you say it, I'd say that I appreciate artistic liberties like 'mercurial Spaniard'. Writing can be a form of direct communication as well as a refined art form. I enjoy the departure from the usual lexicon.


Just ran Paul's article through Anonymouth https://github.com/psal/anonymouth Considerably changed and mangled beyond all recognition. It even sounds less persuasive in tone.


Generalizing: "Representation of ideas done in any form should be done in a way that impairs as little cognitive load as possible on the reader".

This principle goes in programming, as well as in writing. But not all writing is done to transmit ideas, there is also aesthetic side of it.


Something that helps a lot with achieving a conversational tone is to actually record "spoken drafts" of what you want to write about, then transcribe the audio.

For optimal results, have a point-form plan of what you want to discuss so you will stay on topic and avoid rambling.


my favorite advice on writing form Scot Adams:

http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/06/the_...


when i first read Saramago [1], i was impressed how he wrote with no punctuation or even capital letters, and how enjoyable and easy to read it was, it was definitely a breath of fresh air, only a few times it was hard to follow the story, mainly on dialogues i sometimes got lost who was saying what, overall his writing style made reading his novels a lot of fun, my feeling was more like listening to someone tell me a story directly, rather than having to get hold of the rhythm and style of the writer.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Saramago


Ugh, I agree with the sentiment, but the proposed solution is almost as awkward as the prose he descries. I agree with Paul that "fancy", "formal" prose like this is (randomly chosen example) does no one any favors:

    > This work aims to address the disconnect between object-oriented design
    > and implementation by rethinking the way object-oriented languages are
    > structured. We have developed a set of requirements with which to identify
    > good relationship models, and used these requirements to develop a
    > new model for the object-oriented paradigm which focuses on relationships
    > rather than objects. We will test the effectiveness of the model by designing
    > a language which uses it, along with a formal specification and a
    > practical implementation for the language. We will measure the effectiveness
    > of our model by conducting case studies comparing development in
    > existing languages with development in our relationship-based language.
But saying that the only solution is to write how you speak informally to friends also eliminates prose like:

    > The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops
    > of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen
    > American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
I don't think Anthony Doerr uses phrases like "mouths of mortars" when having beer with his friends, but his prose is an absolute work of art. Every single word and dollop of punctuation there is perfect.

The key part is not to write like you are speaking to your friends. It's to write like you are speaking to a specific audience. Have a picture in your mind of yourself speaking in a venue to one or more people. The image you have will dramatically affect the way you right.

Picture yourself giving a hollering a rousing speech to a platoon of soldiers about to enter into battle and your reader will hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic by the time they reach the end of your paragraph. Whisper your words into the ear of a lover and your reader will get the shivers.

For most of the writing we on HN do, sure, "explaining something cool to your friends over lunch" is exactly the right image to get your style in line. But it's a massive over-simplification to say all prose should be written with tat venue in mind.

Personally, I think "mercurial Spaniard" is a great description of Picasso.


I don't know about "write like you talk", precisely, but I've noticed that some very good writing on technical subjects reads like you could give it as a talk, so there's something there about clarity.


On an unrelated note - orthography... https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Christoph_Adelung


this is true in general, but it bears noting that highly specialized fields need jargon. there's nothing wrong with using a word "in a technical sense," nor is there anything wrong with leaning on connotation to help orient your interlocutor.

writing and speaking are like anything else: use the right tool for the job. when i talk to people outside of analytic philosophy, i can't use various technical terms to talk about wittgenstein's thoughts on language. i can talk about them, but it takes longer. like, a lot longer.


So I should talk in Legal English all day? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_English which is the reverse of writing as one talks, because the Rule of Law surrounds us always, except for the criminals who flout it repeatedly throughout their day.

When I write, I self censor all the time, and it is no different when I talk. We forgive and forget. We silo only certain words to certain areas of the world. "What happens in Vegas" etc. Language only becomes a problem when it is committed permanently to the footnotes of the web. You can't overlook the law aspect. You also can't so easily withdraw a statement said online.


Hemingway had a thing or two to say about this.

>I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.


I think there is absolutely a place and time for writing the way you talk and that the same goes for writing formally.

The discussion of when and where for either case is a topic in and of itself.


Considering how many people now say the work "like" at least twice per sentence (especially young people), I don't think this is good advice without some caveats.


It's not exactly how you talk.

It's just not flowery and embellished and wandering.

People really don't read. They don't care. They don't have time.

Keep it simple and they might read part of it.


The funny thing is that Neil Oliver really does talk like that.


You can use Google-Translate to read your writing back to you.


Good point. Sounds obvious now that you point it out but I hadn't thought of it.


Please don't write like you talk. It's bad enough having to listen to them, I don't want to have to read the expletives as well.


This x 10 for legal documents. Simplify them please.


I agree, simplifying would be great. You do realize, however, that a large part of the legal profession is to intentionally write broadly, imprecisely, and flexibly to avoid traps. Other kinds of legal writing are intentionally precise in some clauses so as to add complexity to deliberately avoid immediate comprehension.


In the manner of discourse such as you have exemplified with your comments under your current pseudonym, it is difficult to ascertain your intended trop, voice, or topic. Thus, I hereby request that you rephrase in a more course or colloquial or blunt manner.


Your sense of humor is dizzying and perhaps difficult to find.

If you want more blunt - I speak multiple languages at native or near native level, including two since birth. Spoken English, especially by your average American is rarely to the point, clear, and pleasant. Don't write like you speak, because the average person sucks at it. Instead, know your subject and audience and write to them. Avoid overgeneralizing because it's easy to make an ass of yourself like PG.

Regarding legalese, it is hard to understand and that is intentional. Could it be any clearer for you or will you down-vote again?


To all the valid criticisms of the actual advice in the article, I'd like to add that pg's gratuitous poke at gender studies, of all things, was unnecessary. He could have made his same (wrong) point about academia without including that term. His inclusion of "gender" as a marker for "bogus" humanities shows more about his privileged, white cisgender male perspective than about his subject.

This guy is a "thought leader" for the startup community. Congratulations.


If anything, I need to talk like how I write. I'm a writer, not a talker: I'm verbose in speech, but concise in text.


Yes, as long as you aren't writing about emotion or sensation or philosophy or psychology or anything deeply human.


I'm really torn on this one. In the abstract, I agree with the main argument of this essay. However, it saddens me to see PG planning to write more like he speaks. His writing is so good that it's been life changing for me, but I only find his talks mediocre. It truly would be a pity if he took his own advice to heart and lost some of the essay-writing awesome sauce.


This is a no-brainer.

At first, I thought it's not worthy of an essay because it's so obvious.

But then I read the comments.


To clarify:

I don't think Paul Graham meant ramble, use "uhs" and "ums" and expletives as some commenters have said.

I think the point was to use common and simple wording so that people can understand without doing a lot of work. People have a lot more practice understanding common and simple words. So it's much easier for them to read, no matter how smart they are.

Using uncommon or complicated words makes you feel smart, and might make some people think you're smart, but it makes your writing miserable work to read.

I think this was pretty clear in PG's essay, but the headline probably threw people off. Maybe he should have said it differently, such as "Make your writing as simple as your speech."


Agreed. I feel like I'm tripping over the ego of some writers trying to read their work; I can practically see them with the thesaurus out trying to make things sound grander and more complicated than they are.


“Write like I talk” would be the most surefire social-media-suicide method I could think of.


What's wrong with "mercurial Spaniard"?


"Write how you WISHED you talked."


i would love to! once technology actually allows me to do it. Dragon dictate hasn't delivered yet. So who will?


I couldn't disagree with this more.


Sound advice.


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