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

By Jack Limpert

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.
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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.

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