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.
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 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.
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.
So should I write as I [find I need to] speak or should I write with my natural lexicon?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
For comparison, gmaxwell is more difficult to transcribe because of compressed deeply parenthetical spike bursts:
and I remember jgarzik gave me lots of trouble recently during his talk:
For more comparison, here was an impromptu sit-down session with a few (high-energy) friends:
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....
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And some experienced speakers will have their speaches written out and timed.
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 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."
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.
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. 
>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  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.
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.).
68 words in the opening sentence for one of the replies.
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).
That said, "um and ahh" for filler is still vastly better than "like".
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.
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.
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.
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.
I agree with the spirit of pg's essay, but I also agree that there's probably more to it.
These airs, where would one obtain them?
And on what would one put these airs? on what?
>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.
> 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.
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.
> >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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
(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
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 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.
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.
(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.
But, yeah, I like pg's suggestion because it is .. well.. more succinct: easier to remember 1 guideline than vi rules :)
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.]
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..."
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.
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 code was broken" instead of "You broke the code" serves the same function.
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?
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.
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:
~ Christopher Hitchens
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)
If you have trouble doing this, the Hemingway App might help.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
"...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'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.
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).
What's the Latin for that?
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.
(I would argue preparing a speech does not count, since you are then by definition talking like you have written).
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.
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.
>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.
Edit: I am not being facetious.
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.
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.
However, as others have said, the important thing is to write naturally and with clarity to get the message across.
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.
 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.
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?
It's an unusual way of punctuating things, but it seems to work okay.
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.
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.
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...
: Examples include http://railstutorial.org/book, http://tauday.com/tau-manifesto, and http://learnenough.com/command-line-tutorial
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!
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.
> "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.)
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.
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.
: Feynman, Six Not-So-Easy-Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
(If you were explaining the idea in this essay?) Or please explain.
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.
Edit: Dropbox link – https://www.dropbox.com/sh/um4djdcdb5isw6y/AAAzF6Xm-PGrkJT3Z...
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."
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
"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."
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subvocalization
Imagine war and peace written in spoken language.:(
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.
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).
<br> makes this impossible.
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".
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.
On the other hand, if you're writing nonfiction, with the goal of conveying information effectively, then this is probably good advice.
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.
For optimal results, have a point-form plan of what you want to discuss so you will stay on topic and avoid rambling.
> 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.
> 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.
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.
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.
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.
>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.
The discussion of when and where for either case is a topic in and of itself.
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.
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?
This guy is a "thought leader" for the startup community. Congratulations.
At first, I thought it's not worthy of an essay because it's so obvious.
But then I read the comments.
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."