Speaking is a natural act. Every single human being has the ability to do it. And at a very young age. The reason why says cognitive scientist and linguist Stephen Pinker is because we have a language instinct.
We master this instinct as we imitate sounds made by mom and dad, brother and sister, nana and popo. Soon we are forming one word sentences, then two and three words sentences, and, at around age two, we are demanding to put our seat belts on ourselves while “you worry about yourself.”
Writing, however, is another story.
Man has an indistinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write. – Charles Darwin
Because writing is a recent invention (roughly 5,200 years old), it’s not instinctual and has to be encouraged and taught. And for anyone who has learned to write — or teaches young writers — we all know that’s not easy. Writing is hard because it is not natural. And this unnaturalness usually shows up in wobbly, demented prose.
This can be overcome, however, by writing with a conversational tone. In other words, writing like you speak. But funny thing is … when we sit down to type out a post or book or sales letter … we tighten up, balk, and blame the weather-breakfast-horoscope.
There are several reasons for this.
One, who wouldn’t stall when faced with the reality that, unlike spoken words, written words become permanent public fixtures once we publish them? From that moment onward we face criticism and ridicule.
Not so with speech. Its transitory nature makes it pretty tempting to pop off what ever is on our mind with little fear for fallout. How often have you, six months or six years down the road, said, “Dang, I wish I’d never said that”?
The other reason we get stiff when we think about writing is that it really is not a natural act. Unlike the act of speaking, where you are face-to-face with another person, when you sit down (or stand up if that’s your thing) to write, you’ve entered the land of make believe: you have to pretend like you are talking to someone when you’re not. We call people who do that lunatics (eccentric if they have a lot of money in the bank).
And that weirdness renders some creative, but wooden and dense prose. “I have an indispensable attraction with the fabric enveloping your hip region.” You mean you like her skirt?
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Leonhardt (now editor of NY Times’ The Upshot) was no stranger to wordslaw when he began his career. So for several months he wrote all of his rough drafts in Yahoo Mail instead of Microsoft Word and trained himself to be a plain-spoken writer. And it’s probably safe to say he imagined he was in a conversation when he wrote those rough drafts.
Of course, instead of writing a rough draft, you could use your phone’s voice memo or software like Dragon Naturally Speaking that turns voice into text. Again, just pretend you are talking to someone else. By the way, nice side benefit to this approach is you’ll naturally work in your own voice and style into your prose.
And don’t forget to read what you wrote out loud. (For a funny version of this advice, see this.)