Bad writing is often the result of trying too hard. Most of us think we know what good writing is supposed to look and sound like. But when we try too hard to imitate that ideal, our writing can end up awkward, unnatural, and stilted.
I did this myself several years ago after reading a biography of a brilliant Christian missionary who died at the hands of cannibals. One thing that inspired me about this man’s life was his habit of keeping a journal of his thoughts and experiences. It motivated me to try journaling myself.
The problem was, I was so impressed by the eloquence of the man’s writing, that I tried to imitate not only his practice of journal-keeping, but his writing style as well. Unfortunately, I am not nearly the writer that this man was. I gave up, discouraged, soon after starting.
About a year later, I found that abandoned journal and read through a few of my entries. It was embarrassing. I thought, Yuk! This doesn’t even sound like me! What good is a journal if it doesn’t reflect the writer’s thoughts in his own words?
I started again with less lofty aspirations and have been keeping a journal with some regularity ever since. I’m no candidate for a Pulitzer Prize, of course. My journals will never be published. In fact, I doubt if anyone will even be able to decipher my handwriting. But I write for my own benefit mostly. It’s bland writing about an ordinary guy, but it’s my life in my words. I’m content with that.
The truth is, my real voice makes for easier reading than my previous pathetic attempts at eloquence. I try to hear my words and rearrange them until they feel comfortable. I don’t have clearly defined rules; I just like the way some things sound better than others.
Over the years, I’ve helped many students with college application essays. I’ve seen many good writers create terribly stiff and contorted essays. The sentences are awkward and unnecessarily complex, and multi-syllabic words are sprinkled throughout in an obvious attempt to sound impressive. In their eagerness to convince admissions officers of their intelligence, these students forget a basic writing principle — sound like yourself.
My advice for all writers is to read through your work asking yourself, “Can I imagine myself saying these words?” If your answer is “No way!” you better start revising. If it sounds goofy coming out of your mouth, it will sound goofy coming off the page, too. Part of developing a style is trusting your ear.
Now, in “writing like you talk,” there are other things to consider. Remember that you likely speak to different people with different tones and attitudes. You are probably less careful with grammar and diction when talking to your best friend on the phone than you are when introduced to your father’s boss. Circumstances matter too. A conversation with your brother at the breakfast table will have a different feel from an interview for a summer job.
Even so, as you consider the factors of audience and purpose, you must be comfortable with your word choices. Plain and authentic is always better than elaborate and phony.
In general, Write like you talk is a good rule to follow.