Writing Like You Speak – Good, Bad, or Ugly

I’m pretty sure I sound like a blonde on the phone. In fact, I know I sound blonde, because I’ve had people (employees) who know me by phone only, meet me later and tell me so. (They also think I’m a lot taller than I am.) It’s likely disconcerting to discover that your boss is a short Asian woman, especially after your imagination has convinced you that I’m fair-skinned and statuesque.

(I’m only bringing this up because my daughter decided to dye her hair blonde this weekend. This has nothing to do with anything…)

When analyzing the “why” of this phenomenon, I can only come to one conclusion: It’s my voice. I laugh too loud, my humor is left of center, and I am overly emotional. (I have no theories about the 5′ 8″ supposition.)

I’ve often said that I write like I speak. Which isn’t completely true, because my mouth is not as fast on the draw as my brain. (That’s why I started writing, because speaking was difficult.) It is true in the sense that I pepper my speech with words and phrases I’m in the habit of saying – we all do this, it’s human nature. My own father was fond of “evidently” and “Suzie Q.” But when writing and/or reading, we don’t need those extra filler words.

Take the first sentence of this blog post:

I’m pretty sure I sound like a blonde on the phone.

This is how I sound in real life – full of adverbs, when all I wanted to say was this:

I sound blonde on the phone.

Now that I’ve been writing seriously, as I edit, these filler words stare back at me with the illumination of a thousand suns. It’s amazing how worthless they are. I’d been told many times before that the mind skips over these words as they’re read. Since I had originally written the words, I didn’t believe it – until the edit. Heck, if I can see I don’t need them, I probably don’t.

However, writing how you speak does have an upside. Let’s say you’re working on a novel in first person. If your main character is middle aged and high class, or a teenager with attitude, or a sassy thirty-something in search of love, you can imbue some of these characteristics in speech. Or, in period pieces like Monte Schulz’s This Side of Jordan, where the rag-tag cast of characters from the Depression era says things like “My cousin Frenchy eats crawdads cold,” a hint of uneducated dialect goes a long way in portraying the look and feel of the character. (Just so you know, the book also features also a dwarf who is extremely well-educated; you know this through his dialogue.)

Writing how you speak has a bad and ugly side, however. Too much can be too distracting. The reader can get the gist of a heavy accent with a light touch. The author does not have to misspell words in order to get the point across. The reader will tire of a character who (perhaps like you) has trouble conversing.

Personally, I have to be in the mood to write in first person as a character. For Amberly Cooper, I have to listen to a lot of teenagers beforehand, the more self-absorbed the better. For Cadence Reed, I have to either read deep, depressing novels or watch movies that make me cry. I had the worst time when I wrote Virtually Yours, a book with seven distinctive characters from different parts of the country. My first draft found all of the characters sounding the same – like me. Slowly, I had to separate the “me” in my characters and give each of them believable voices of their own. I accomplished this by talking to people in various parts of the country and listening to their speech patterns.

If you’re like me and write like you speak, make sure your edit is thorough. Your writing must convey character, but it must also make sense.