3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Write Like You Speak

David Ogilvy, the legendary ad man, wrote:

“Write the way you talk. Naturally.”

This comes from a famed internal memo sent to his employees.

I love the idea and think it’s wonderful advice. However, before you hit the “publish” button, skim through your words and perform a quick review. Don’t use Ogilvy’s advice as an excuse for lazy writing.

The words you just vomited onto the page are there for a purpose. If you want to write to inspire, persuade, or simply get your point across clearly, I recommend you make a few edits.

Then, think about the way you speak. If you speak like you’re writing you’ll understand why your persuasive techniques aren’t working as well as they could be.

1. You Got A Better Verb?

When Ogilvy wrote his memo the word “got” wasn’t as commonly used as it is today. It’s lazy speaking and conveys vague action in your sentence.Verbs

Verbs are the action in your writing. They sprinkle the magic dust and allow your words to paint the mental canvass for your reader. As an example, which feels more enjoyable to read?

  1. John got the car keys.
  2. John seized the car keys.

I hope you felt a little more enjoyment in the second sentence. You could use dozens of other verbs instead of seized. You could use snatched up, nabbed, grasped, clutched, hung on to, etc. These bring up images far more rich in detail than simply, “got.” And that’s the point.

Another misuse, “got” is often an extra word. It’s most commonly added onto the word “have” (or a form of the word “have” like “had” or “has.”) as an unnecessary word in the sentence. Example:

  • John had got the keys so he could start the car.

The word “got” is completely unnecessary. You could’ve written, “John had the keys,” and it would’ve been fine. Adding “got” makes the sentence bulky and not fun to read.

Grab a thesaurus (although I prefer an physical, print thesaurus) and find elegant verbs. Make your action pop off the page. Got it?

2. The Passive Voice That Created Confusion Was Written By The Author

I’m not a grammarian. I don’t believe you should worry about the many strict rules of grammar while writing. You understand most rules naturally. Plus, worrying won’t help you construct your compelling masterpiece.

If you’re going to implement one rule, learn how to write without a passive voice. You write passively when the subject of your sentence is receiving, instead of the one performing, the action (or verb). When you write in a passive voice it makes the reader struggle to understand what’s happening. More examples:

  1. The ball was thrown by John. (Passive)
  2. John threw the ball. (Active)

In the first sentence, John is the subject but “the ball” is performing the action of being thrown. In the second sentence John is performing the action. Did you also notice the second sentence is more concise and easy to understand?

You can often find the passive voice by your use of the the verb “to be,” and its various forms. These are: be, being, is, was, am, been, are, were, and contractions formed from these words (ex. I’m or wasn’t). I may be missing a few and you can read more on it here.

You don’t need to eliminate it completely. Sometimes a passive voice is best used to express your thought. Most would prefer you ruthlessly edit your passive sentences and create vibrant, dancing images in your reader’s mind.

3. “That” Is That Unnecessary Word

I’m guilty of this one. I hate it. I hate it! (I used it in the title of this post before I edited it out.)

When I’m done writing a piece the first thing I proof for is the word “that” and rewrite almost every sentence where I find it. I just did a search on this document and found it in three places before this section. I changed one to make the sentence clear (I won’t tell you which, sorry) and the others are there because they fit. I’m getting better.

The word “that” is often an extra word. Many bloggers out there don’t even notice they’re throwing it in. It’s how they speak (I speak with it occasionally and, did I say, “I hate it,” yet?”). “That” typically adds nothing to a sentence.

I’m going to struggle for a couple examples now:

  1. It’s important that you write well.
  2. You think that John is smart until you read what he wrote.

Now, read each sentence without the word “that” in them. Does it change the meaning? No. Does it sound better? Hell yes!

It’s as though the sentence is covered in mud and when you remove “that” you cleanse it to make it shiny and new.resonate

This isn’t going to make your writing resonate like the voice of a top opera star but it will keep your voice from sounding like a chain-smoking homeless man.

Many people won’t notice you’ve woven “that” throughout your writing. But, look at those who consistently create “awesome content,” those you deeply enjoy reading, you’ll notice the word “that” is rarely used improperly.

But It’s How I Talk

Great. Me too.

I do what I can to edit myself when speaking and I know I’m not perfect. When speaking though, once you’ve said a word it’s gone. When you put it in writing, it’s just the opposite. In writing it’s, as they threatened you in grade school, on your permanent record.

If you’re writing to influence, you want vivid moving images in the mind of your customer. To me, these three common errors make the images stagnant or fuzzy. They don’t allow your words to create the happy dance you expected in your customer’s mind. And, creating the happy dance is what it’s about, is it not?

What do you commonly read that nags your irritation nerve?

Pure verb image by Grongar.
Resonate image by Robynejay

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Comments & Discussion

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  1. says

    Sure, but only if you speak well (really wanted to type good right there), right?

    #3 is the biggest issue for me. My journalism background taught me to remove all those words in the first edit, but I still can’t believe I write them.

    Also: “John grabbed the car keys.”

    • says

      I hate to admit but they’re all issues for me at times. I violate them all when speaking and writing. The beauty of writing is the ability to edit before sending off into the world.

      I appreciate the edit too. It’s changed and the world won’t see my mistake.

  2. says

    This is a FANTASTIC article, Matt.

    First off, I love that you challenged one of the godfathers of the advertising industry.

    Then, the point you make are “Robin Hood” accurate. Verbs should be active, visceral and active. “That” is almost always extraneous (but I constantly wage war to keep it out of my written sentences). And the passive voice is anathema.

    Brilliant, helpful and necessary!

    • says

      Ha! I know I’m not the only one writing with these. I feared writing this because someone will look back and find the many times I’ve used these. Live and grow. We were all young(er) once.

  3. says

    Hey Matt, It’s amazing how much you can improve your writing with a couple of rounds of edit huh? :) These are great and easy to implement suggestions.

    If you get a chance, check out editinghacks.com for lots more cool improvements like these.

    • says

      Ted, I enjoy editing about as much as I enjoy getting kicked in the head. I’m fortunate to have access to a university grammar check system which I run posts through before publishing (I believe it’s similar, if not the same as, Grammarly.com). I don’t make all the corrections suggested because I don’t want to lose my voice. However, I do take note of my many errors and do my best to eliminate them as I write.

      I see these three mistakes a lot on many popular blogs. I wish more people would edit better, if at all, before they post to make the writing easier to read. These mistakes are simple to see and correcting them makes the writing more lively.

      Editinghacks.com looks interesting. I bookmarked it and will look at it in more depth. There’s a lot there. Thank you.