I've been debating "informal" writing with some members of an online forum. We're all fans of writing that reads like casual conversation, but we differ on how best to achieve it (or, more causally, “how to best achieve it”). A popular view -- and one that sounds logical -- is that one should write "the way one speaks."
If "write like you speak" means "don't don an unnatural, writerly voice when you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard)", then I agree. In general, you should use your speaking vocabulary when you write, not some souped-up vocabulary, peppered with highfalutin' words. More accurately, you should use the vocabulary you WOULD use, if you were better at thinking of the right word at the right time.
And here's the problem with "write like you speak," assuming this means "talk into a tape recorder and then transcribe the speech, verbatim, onto paper." When you speak, you you're extemporizing. On the fly, you lack the time necessarily to choose strong words and to order your thoughts. For instance, I say "he let the keys fall," but if I had a minute to revise, I would realize that "he dropped the keys" was stronger. It still sounds informal. I MIGHT have said "dropped." It just didn't occur to me as I was speaking.
Trying to get this point across -- and to sneak in some other problems I have with transcribed speech -- I went overboard and posted this transcription:
I dis... I don't agree. Because. Um. Hold on ... Um. If you write like you speak, you'll -- you know -- get all these ums and uhs and false starts and stuff in there. In your writing. You know what I mean? You know? And you'll be redundant and keep saying the same thing over and over. The goal ... I think ... is not to ... um ... write like you speak, because... Well... people -- when you speak, people don't have to follow each and every word, you know, because you use body language and inflection and there's a lot of redundancy, but when you read, you, you know, you read all the words. And words are all there are. The goal should be to give the ILLUSION of writing like you speak without actually writing like you speak. Which is hard work.
My opponents pointed out that I was stacking the deck. We can take it for granted that ANY writer will edit out the stammers. Which leaves us with the following:
I don't agree. If you write like you speak, you'll get all these ums and uhs and false starts and stuff in there. And you'll be redundant and keep saying the same thing over and over. The goal is not to write like you speak, because people don't have to follow each and every word. You use body language and inflection and there's a lot of redundancy, but when you read, you read all the words. And words are all there are. The goal should be to give the ILLUSION of writing like you speak without actually writing like you speak. Which is hard work.
Pretty talky and causal -- but weak. It's filled with boring (un-evocative) "to be"* verbs, needless repetition, and disordered thoughts. I rewrote it, trying to fix these problems. But maybe I pushed it too far away from casual:
I disagree. If you write like you speak, you'll have to slip a bunch ums, uhs and false starts between words and sentences. And you'll repeat yourself. Repetition helps speech, because conversations are full of distractions (the jukebox in the bar, the sneeze, the cough). But readers read every word. And words are all they read. Speech has two sidekicks: body language and inflection. When you write, shoot for the ILLUSION of "writing like you speak" without actually writing like you speak. It's tough to pull off. You'll have to work at it.
My final re-write (which would NOT be my final one in "real life") was an attempt to inject some talkiness back into it:
You're wrong. If you write like you speak, you'll have to slip a bunch ums, uhs and false starts between words and sentences, and you'll repeat yourself over and over. I don't mind repeating myself when I'm talking, because conversations are full of distractions -- like the sneezes, coughs and jukeboxes in bars. But when I write, I assume readers read every word. And ALL they read are words. They don't get the "sidekicks" that usually tag along with my words when I'm talking -- body language and inflection. When you write, you should shoot for the ILLUSION of "writing like you speak" without ACTUALLY writing like you speak. It's tough to pull off, so you'll have to work at it.
The trouble with transcribing speech is that, when we speak, we don't have time to compose phrases and sentences that utilize the power tools of writing: active-voice, rich (evocative) word choice, metaphor, etc.
After I write a first draft (which might be a transcription of my speech from a tape -- or some other loose, brainstormy, get-in-on-paper technique), I scan my text several times, looking for specific problems and solving them via rewrites. Here are some of the things I look for:
Passive-voiced sentences and sentences that don't have a clear agent -- someONE should be doing someTHING. That formal voice, which we're wisely trying to avoid, is often signaled by passive language: "Democracy has been foisted on voters." WHO is doing the foisting? WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM? I literally go through each sentence and ask myself that. There has to be a clear MOTIVATOR and that MOTIVATOR has to be motivating SOMETHING. This is the way humans naturally view the word -- people/objects doing things to people/objects -- so it's the most natural, forceful, evocative way to write.
Verb choice. If you get too fancy -- "he confabulated" -- it won't sound conversational. But within the realm of natural speech, there are many verbs one MIGHT use, and they come in distinct, powerful flavors: he jumped, he ran, she dodged, I gulped...
Appeal to the senses. We have five of them. And it's through them that we experience the world. When I speak, I tend to forget about some of them, but I like to go through my prose and see if there's a way to cram in sensual data: "the argument left a sour taste in my mouth," "her skirt was the color of a grasshopper," "he hissed at me," "I rubbed the sore spot on my nose..."
Metaphors for abstractions. "I was so busy that I hardly noticed her absence, but it gradually wore on me." Can you really FEEL this? Maybe I should add something like: "I was so busy that I hardly noticed her absence, but it gradually wore on me. I felt like grass that had been beaten down by the sun for too long, brittle and brown." You have to be careful here, because if you get too clever (or too "poetic"), it won't sound conversational. But we do use tropes in our everyday speech, and they can really help make abstract writing more accessible.
*"To be" is a useful, indispensable verb. Still, you should avoid it when you can, because it doesn’t conjure up an image. "He is hungry" isn't a bad sentence, but note that "is" doesn't make you see anything. In the best sentences, verbs contribute to the image: "he sidesteps the turd." If must use "to be," make sure the other parts of your sentence are arresting.