Write Like You Speak
When I first started college, I was a history major. I will always have a huge passion for learning about world history, but there was something about that field of study that turned me off and caused me to change my major. It wasn't just that I wanted something more practical and, frankly, employable; it was that nearly all the readings I had to do were extremely inaccessible and difficult to understand.
That's what led me to media and journalism. From my very first class in the department, my professors made it clear that our purpose was to write for the average person. We were instructed to write in plain English that would be accessible to as many people as possible, and I found that incredibly refreshing after coming from a field like history, which almost seems like it's designed to be inaccessible to as many people as possible.
My writing improved by leaps and bounds during my time at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. And while I learned many important lessons about writing, I think the most important one—and certainly the one I use most in my day-to-day work—is to write like you speak.
I've had several friends come to me for writing help, lamenting that they just can't translate their thoughts into the written word, and I always ask them the same question: How would you say it out loud?
This is the best way to overcome the dreaded writer's block and put pen to paper. It's also the best way to ensure that your writing is easy for readers to understand, which, in turn, gets your message across more effectively. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to use simple language and punctuation. When you start to complicate things by using ten-dollar words and long run-on sentences, your writing will go over many people's heads. That's the last thing you want when you're trying to communicate a message.
Does this mean you can't write with a sense of style and sophistication, or throw in a big word every once in a while? Certainly not. But there's a balance between writing with style and writing with accessibility in mind. It's okay if a few of your readers have to consult the dictionary for a word or two, but don't litter your article with so many big words that they give up altogether. One of my pet peeves is when writers write in a way that would only be comprehensible to those with an Oxford education and a photographic memory of the dictionary.
As a general rule, if you wouldn't say it out loud, you shouldn't write it. You'd probably feel ridiculous using the word "elucidate" in casual conversation, so why put it in an article? Given the choice between a long word that few will understand, and a short word that most will understand, you should always choose the latter.
So the next time you find yourself struggling to put your thoughts onto the page, remember: Just write it like you would say it. It'll make things easier for both you and your readers.