I told my freshman composition and developmental writing students for nearly a decade that the whole point of writing is to communicate an idea. If your readers can’t understand what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your message is. No one is getting that message. The main fix for that is to maintain a conversational tone in your writing, making your audience feel at ease and not have to work to decipher or interpret your words.
Rule #1: Stop Trying to Write Like a Writer
The very first thing you need to do in order to maintain a conversational tone is understand what a conversational tone is. Writing in a conversational style is basically following the rule of write like you talk. And while that means something different to everyone, the heart of it is this:
If you wouldn’t say it like that, don’t write it like that.
Really. If something would sound weird if you said it out loud, it likely reads weird on the page. Too often, people get in their heads that writers sound a certain way. Big words, long sentences, and complicated syntax. That is simply not true.
The best writers are the ones who know their audience and write to them. Writing like a writer isn’t trying to sound intelligent or well-read. It’s about having a conversation with your reader. And you can’t do that if you sound like a rambling lunatic.
Two of the best ways to accomplish this are using shorter sentences and simpler word choice. Flowery prose doesn’t mean you’re a better writer. Hemingway was just as much a genius as Shakespeare. And just because the word eschew might fit, why not use avoid? More people would then understand what you’re trying to say.
Rule #2: Use Contractions
It may not be something you pay attention to, but people use contractions in conversation a lot. They’re an easy way to make speech sound more casual without changing any meaning or the syntax of your sentences.
In general, people don’t speak without contractions. It’s incredibly formal and slightly stilted/robotic if someone talks in person without contractions. In many ways, this makes something have conversational tone more than anything else.
The example I used with my students was this: if someone asks you where you want to eat for dinner, and you have no idea, how would you answer?
I do not know or I don’t know? Most likely, it’s the second one.
In academic and business writing, sometimes including contractions if frowned upon. It might be seen as too casual. But if you’re looking for a quick way to sound conversational, look for places you can insert some contractions.
Rule #3: Use First-Person Pronouns
First-person pronouns are the ones coming from yourself. I, me, we, our, us and so on. For this article, I made the choice for this article to use the pronoun I instead of even we because this is something that I personally have experience with, rather than coming from the overall team or company.
When choosing to use first-person pronouns, you’re automatically giving the piece a more conversational tone. For academic, professional, business, and formal writing, removing yourself entirely from the piece is pretty normal.
After all, you (generally) want the piece to be about the topic or the audience, not about the author. However, using first-person pronouns brings you into the conversation directly. Doing so not only establishes that the piece is meant as a conversation (rather than a directive or memo), but it can also establish an air of trust between the author and reader.
I chose to use I for this based on having taught college English for nearly a decade. Hopefully, that choice can help you trust the advice more than a generalized do this kind of post coming from a generic we or us.
Rule #4: Don’t Stress Over Proper Grammar
I can just feel the cringing going on from folks as they read that headline. Proper grammar is important. We even have an article on how to take your bad grammar and make it better. But sometimes not following each and every grammar rule we were taught in school can make a piece more easily readable and conversational.
One of my favorite anecdotes about this (though popularly attributed to Winston Churchill, may just be one of those internet stories gone awry) is about the do not end a sentence with a preposition rule.
If you’re like me, you were docked a number of points in various classes for choosing the conversational voice rather than proper grammatical one. Because it simply sounds better. It’s better writing.
The anecdote goes something like this:
Winston Churchill was discussing the importance of grammar and diction and rhetoric in an interview. The interviewer asked him about steadfast rules such as ending sentences with prepositions, to which Churchill replies “ending a sentence with a preposition, my good man, is something up with which I will not put.”
The point I (and Churchill) am making here is that in choosing “proper grammar” and not ending a sentence with a preposition, Churchill’s syntax has become unnecessarily pedantic and complicated. It obscures the meaning of the sentence and has to be parsed separately.
Simply put, proper grammar is great most of the time, but if you obscure what you’re trying to say, consider breaking the rules. Or at least bending them.
Rule #5: Write to Someone Specific
Don’t write to everyone. In order to maintain a truly conversational style, you need to write a though you’re having a conversation.
That means that for every piece of content that you create, you need to come up with a persona to whom you are writing. If you write a tech tutorial on how to run new network cables, are you writing to a veteran of the industry or a newbie? That will change the tone of the piece.
Am I writing this to other English teachers, or am I writing this to people who are beginning to mid-career of different kinds of content creation?
In general, having a persona in your mind of someone who will be reading the article can help make the conversational tone come across better. I’m not talking to the Elegant Themes blog visitors. I am talking to Sharon and Sayid, full-time technical writers who want to move into more content creation as freelancers.
That means, I am talking directly to someone. So I can then write like I talk. I can use personal examples without coming across unprofessional. And I know how to gauge the success of the article based on responses and overall visits, whereas generalized posts are harder.
Having a specific audience or person in mind makes having a conversation easier because you’re, well, having a conversation. Not lecturing a large group of faceless people.
Maintaining a conversational style in your writing is important to reaching the audience you want to reach. It makes your writing more readable and understandable. And in the long run, more memorable. You probably don’t want to respond emails to your subordinates with sup, Chief?, but a Hey, what’s up? versus Hello. What can I do for you? can go a long way in making your readers feel like you’re talking to them, rather than at them.
What do you do to make your writing have a more conversational tone?
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