Conversational Writing: 10 Tips by Leo Babauta

    conversational writing

    Writing, when properly managed, is but a different name for conversation. – Laurence Sterne

    While I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest writer, one of my strengths as a writer is the ability to write in a fairly conversational style.

    I might not write like everyone talks, but I write like I talk, and I think it creates a more welcoming style of writing.

    Readers are drawn into conversational writing as they are into a good conversation, ideally, and I’ve found this style of writing to be relaxed, fun, and engaging.

    Of course, there are as many styles of conversation as there are people, so what is conversational to me isn’t necessarily so to you. So making your style more conversational doesn’t mean following rigid rules or writing like me (or anyone else). It just means that you write as if you’re talking to the reader, instead of using more formal or academic language.

    It works well for me. If you’re interested in writing conversationally, here are some ideas that might help.

    1. Listen to yourself talk. You can’t write like you talk unless you know how that sounds. You have to develop an ear for your speech, which means paying attention to your speech. Listen to yourself as you talk to others (I know, this can be distracting and lead to some bad conversations). How do you open a conversation? How do you structure your sentences? What kind of words do you use often? Do you speak according to proper grammar, or do you break the rules? Do you use slang? Does it change depending on who you’re talking to?
    2. Listen to others talk. It’s helpful also to learn the speech patterns of others, not just yourself. And listen to real-life people, not people in movies or television — you want real conversation patterns, not the patterns that screenwriters write. Ideally the two should be the same, but they aren’t always. I like to eavesdrop or people watch to get good samples of real-life conversation.
    3. Read good conversational writing. Find good writers who write conversationally, and study their writing patterns and the phrases and words they use. I’m not the only example — many good blogs use this style, as do many good novelists and columnists.
    4. Write as if you’re talking to a close friend. My favorite writing tip comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who advised writers to have a specific reader in mind, and write as if you’re talking to that person. His ideal reader was his sister. Who is yours? If you are talking to the world in general, you’ll probably write more like a speech, rather than like a conversation.
    5. Address the reader directly. Instead of writing in third person or to a general audience, you should speak one-on-one with the reader. Note that I said “you should” rather than “a writer should” or “one should”. When you speak to someone, you usually speak to them directly (although third-person sentences can also be used in conversation).
    6. Talk in your head as you write. By this I mean say it out loud, to your mind’s ear. You should hear your writing as you’re putting pen to paper or pounding away on the keyboard. You could do this by actually saying the words out loud, with your mouth, but I find that method distracting — it’s much better to have a voice in your head. Good writers often have several voices speaking in their heads. It’s why they’re so crazy.
    7. Eliminate formalities. Conversational speech doesn’t follow the rules of formal writing. You can start a sentence with “and” or “but” … you can have run-on sentences from time-to-time, and use ellipses. You can end sentences with prepositions (I do it all the time). I’m not saying you should abandon the rules of grammar altogether, but if faced with a choice between proper grammar and sounding conversational, I will choose conversational. It should be a conscious choice — don’t just ignore the rules, but break them for good reasons.
    8. But don’t be too informal. There’s informal and then there’s slang. Uhs and ums aren’t appropriate in writing. Proper punctuation is much easier to read than sentences without punctuation or capitalization.
    9. Read it out loud when you’re done. After you’ve written a paragraph, or an entire piece (a post, a chapter, a story), read it aloud. Hear how it sounds when spoken, not just by your mind’s voice, but by your mouth’s voice.
    10. If it sounds stilted, change it. When you read it aloud (or in your head as you’re writing), and you hear something that sounds stilted, go back and change it. Make it flow better, make it sound more casual, make it more like speech.

    Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood. – William Shakespeare

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    About the author

      Leo Babauta

      Leo Babauta is the blogger behind the superblog, Zen Habits, which is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of life.

    • thanks for a great post, i like all of those ideas 🙂

    • When Leo says something, I listen carefully!

      When writing for readers, don’t take them for granted. And write for them as if they are sitting in your couch. That way you can express freely!

    • mshivalu says:

      Conversational writing is a big struggle for me. Years of writing papers fr college made writing more stuffy than a taxidermist. (bag joke, but couldn’t resist)

    • Some really good tips here. Not too long ago, I started writing more in a conversational tone with my blog and I saw a HUGE difference. People were more engaged and felt as though they knew me better.

      It was really a surprise to me. Mainly because I didn’t know if I would even be able to write in a conversational tone to begin with. But with practice, I eventually did.

      I like your tip #1. That’s really what helped me start writing in a more conversational tone. When I heard myself talk, and wrote it down on the computer, my personality just oozed out. And people loved it.

      Excellent points here.

      – Andrew

    • this is awesome really awesome.. thanks…

    • Hi,

      It is a fantastic post.I hope this post help me to create more effective writing.I like to use your method.I will pass it to all my friend.Thank you so much.

    • I have to say two things about the Laurence Sterne quote–first, that I had to read Tristram Shandy in college, detested it beyond belief, and swore to never read anything else by Laurence Sterne, and second, that this quote is now probably in my top five favorite things a writer ever said.

      I’m a very conversational writer, and I’ve never had to work at that. I just start typing and my voice comes out. I write nonfiction, particularly self-help and how-to, so the conversational voice is a big attraction for a lot of people. It helps that (people think) I’m funny, and that I have a pretty strong personality which comes through in my writing.

      All of these are great pointers, but “talk in your head as you write” is the most essential, in my oh-so-not-humble opinion. I read very, very fast, and I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be able to read 750 wpm because I subvocalize. Hold on, there’s a point here, it’s just going to take me a second.

      I read 750 wpm, when I want to, and I subvocalize–I hear the words as I read them. I’ve been told by someone who may or may not know what he’s talking about that I could read twice as fast if I stopped subvocalizing. But then I’d miss the best part of reading–hearing the story.

      I subvocalize when I write. I hear it as I type it, and for me that’s the best part. I never know what I’m going to say until I hear it in my head a fraction of a second before I type it. And the best part of writing like I talk is that I love hearing my words as I write. That it makes for a better reading experience is just gravy. Gravy with biscuits and sausage, admittedly, but still just gravy.

    • Kristin says:

      Your advice is really refreshing. It makes me feel less nervous about blogging for the first time. I love the quote at the end. It sums up everything I hope to be in a conversation.

    • I’ve actually started reading my text and recording it. While playing it back, I find all sorts of word-flow issues I need to change. Reading aloud is great, but try listening to yourself.

    • Katherine says:

      This is an amazing coincidence, but I just wrote about how I got feedback at work that the writing I’ve been doing for clients is a bit stuffy. I know I am not a stuffy writer, but I am, apparently, when writing for clients. I’m going to remember your tips when I put my “writing for clients” hat on.

    • Ricardo says:

      Thank you! That was inspiring.
      Just a small remark: there’s no rule ever written about not using a preposition at the end of a sentence – at least, not that I’ve heard of.

      Keep up the good work.

      – Ricardo.

    • But I want to disagree with the writer. How he can say that if I read more and more I will be good writer? I want to know the technique how can I would be a good writer!

    • Hiten Vyas says:

      Fantastic advice in this article.

      I loved the point about talking in your head as you write. I actually find that I do this quite unconsciously, and I usually have to say the words to myself before they go down onto paper. Thank you.

    • Linda Marie says:

      Finally. A valid, credible sounding excuse for all those voices in my head and all that “talking to myself” I tend to do while writing! Take that, all you psychiatrists who tried to give me a label; I’m not crazy…I’m a conversational writer!!

      Seriously, this is a very helpful article, thank you.

    • Yvette says:

      Thank you I am still here with reams of scribble in my own voice that I feel is not publish worthy. I have signed up to a writing course and have read through all the material and after sending two written pieces off, never sent another piece. This post has encouraged me to try again, and this time…I WON’T STOP!

    • Thank you! This article made me really stop and think about the topic…I’ll definitely use some of your hints…

    • Jane says:

      Wonderful tips Leo 🙂 I particularly like #6 since I practice it. In fact I can’t write a blog post without talking the post in my head. I picture myself talking to the reader sitting in front of me. I even do gestures like moving hands trying to get my point across to the reader 🙂

      Earlier, my family members looked at me with a surprise (can even call it a weird look). But now they are used to it. Works great and the blog post turns out in a nice conversational tone 🙂

      Thanks for the wonderful post Leo!

    • AM Simpson says:

      Good post, thanks for sharing and reinforcing it. It was wonderful to read a book recently written by a popular fiction author of today where she used this style in opening sentences of and, but. It was an eye opener, and really helped me not to get so hung up. We tend to overthink! Would like to share this with my followers too.

    • Neil says:

      Leo is such a great writer. An example to follow. I have been reading Zenhabits for quite some time now.

      As for writing conversational content, Leo makes very valid points. While writing any piece, there is one tactic I follow which helps greatly. I just write without stopping, just like one would converse without using backspace. It helps me a lot in producing conversational content. Maybe others can also try it out.

      Shared with my followers.

      Thank you.

    • Leann says:

      Thanks for taking the time to write this article. I’m new to the world of writing and am exploring where I fit into it. Your article resonates with me as, from the little writing I’ve put on-line, the posts that have received the best engagement and feedback were the ones written in conversational style. I also find it to be a more honest way of on-line writing; for me anyway.

    • Olga Mena says:

      Sorry I forgot: I downloaded The Ultimate Guide when it was first offered and recommend it highly.

    • Great post. Will mention it to my writers’ group here in Sydney AUSTRALIA

    • Olga Mena says:

      Dear Mr. Babauta,

      I do hope you aren’t offended by my intimacy. Well into my 60’s I have been writing all my life but have never sent anything out to be published because I write the way I talk and I have never had the courage. Now reading your article which incidentally, was very interesting, I would like to thank you for the advice therein and let you know that I will no longer be hoarding reams of paper and this very evening am going to start learning how to set about blogging without any guilt.

      Yours sincerely,

      Olga Mena.

    • Brian S says:

      I have been reading out loud articles after I’m done and it has improved my work. Great article and great advice.

    • Thank you for resuscitating this post – bookmarked!

      Leo – I do believe you area fabulous writer. #HUGS

      Kitto

    • Here is someone who obviously practices what he preaches. That article really did feel like a conversation! Thanks for the tips.


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