“Write as We Might Speak If We Spoke Extremely Well”

From Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, by Jacques Barzun:

The whole world will tell you, if you care to ask, that your words should be simple & direct. Everybody likes the other fellow’s prose plain. It has even been said that we should write as we speak. That is absurd, as we know from the courtroom dialogue. Most speaking is not plain or direct, but vague, clumsy, confused, and wordy. This last fault appears in every transcript from a taped conversation, which is why we say “reduce to writing.” What is meant by the advice to write as we speak is to write as we might speak if we spoke extremely well.

Another way to look at writing more simply and directly:

Write it as if your favorite news broadcaster will read your words on the air. At my first journalism job, in UPI’s Minneapolis bureau, I had to take stories written for the newspaper wire and rewrite them for the radio-TV wire.

As I wrote the broadcast copy—shorter sentences, keep it simple, keep it moving —and read it aloud to myself, I could envision scores of radio deejays and television anchors across Minnesota and the Dakotas reciting the words to many thousands of people.

As Barzun said, “Write as we might speak if we spoke extremely well.”

When I became a newspaper editor and then a magazine editor, I continued to look for ways to make long, complicated sentences easier to speak—or read.



    If you speak a language other than the one you are writing in, translate your idea as best you can into your second language and then translate that version back into the language in which you are writing.

    I speak Spanish with a good inflection but a limited vocabulary. So when I have an English thought that’s coming out a little wordy or inelegant, I go to the Spanish, which forces me to say the idea in a simpler, shorter, and clearer way. When you don’t know enough words to be wordy, you usually aren’t.

    I translate the Spanish into English, and it’s always a bit shorter and usually more pointed.

    • Barney – In high school I took Latin as a foreign language; they said learning Latin would help me better understand English. If I had stuck with it and really learned Latin, I could have told writers, “Let me translate your story into Latin and back into English and it might be something we can publish.” Better yet, editors could learn to speak Greek—think of the conversations we could have with writers then. – Jack

      • BARNARD COLLIER says

        Dear Jack,

        Every morning the The Flame diner where I go for coffee and corned beef hash with Tabasco, there is a junta of Greeks who tell some of the most ribald and funniest true stories in NYC, all in Greek. When they get particularly uproarious, the Zorba of the tribe will translate the story for me in English, and explain all of the dirty words and clever Greek twists of meaning.

        I think if writers could talk dirty in many languages, they would understand more about what those cultures are really like.



    One more thought:

    “Write as we might speak if we spoke extremely well.”

    On the other hand, there are the astonishingly brilliant stories told by Uncle Remus in words of great wisdom but not so well spoken to many white folks, but spoken lovingly into the ears of a white boy.

    If you enjoy reading aloud, then to tackle the original ‘Brer Rabbit’ stories is a playground for the tongue.

    Joel Chandler Harris, in my estimation, is the greatest journalist and folklorist of his century and like good brandy, it’s hard to get enough of him.


  3. Benjamin Freed says

    All of my stories are best when heard in the voice of Mike Francesa.

  4. Mike Feinsilber says

    Henry Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, (1926) said it better and earlier than Barzun: “Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.”


      Dear Mike,

      You may enjoy this take on usage:

      The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

      I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes

      I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.

      Vladimir Nabokov

  5. In the “Writer’s Guidelines” we used for many years at the Washingtonian, I included these suggestions:

    We have no rules on writing style. The style should come naturally from the writer and the material. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk made these suggestions:
    —Be specific, concrete, definite.
    —Use the active rather than the passive voice.
    —Put the statements in positive form.
    —Write with nouns and verbs.
    —Don’t overstate.
    —Avoid the use of qualifiers.
    —Don’t explain too much.
    —Avoid fancy words.
    —Be clear.

    In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell pointed to these sins of bad writing: “Staleness of imagery . . . lack of precision . . . the concrete melts into the abstract . . . a lack of simple verbs.”

    Some of Orwell’s suggestions:
    —Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
    —Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    —If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    —Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    —Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    —Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    One last word: Speak to the reader as an intelligent friend. The best style is clear, honest, and direct. We like sophisticated ideas and simple language, not the reverse. And don’t forget the favorite question of the late New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “What the hell do you mean?”


      Seconded with enthusiasm

      My problem is what do you do when confronted with someone who might obey all the above rules, but whose ideas are so banal or tiresome they make you yawn before you finish a sentence?

      And you can’t fire them.


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