A lot of people didn’t like my favorite professor. I kind of got it—he was intense and super honest, but he was funny and smart. He was the kind of man that always looked a little disheveled, like he had run into class just after spending the last half hour hurriedly grading papers and eating a donut because he’d had to leave the house too early to eat breakfast. He told my class about his bad reviews on ratemyprofessor.com, which I luckily never checked. I liked him because he made me excited about grammar and he told the truth about life. He didn’t pretend to know everything, which I felt was pretty rare with literary geniuses. He taught my class about the Latin roots of words, how to diagram complicated sentences (which was shockingly fun to me), and how hard the first year of marriage could be. I can’t really remember how to diagram sentences, and I don’t agree that the first year of marriage is hell (not for everyone), but he did give me the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received: write how you speak.
It’s so simple, yet it changed my writing and has helped other people whose papers I edited. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to include all the “ums” and “likes” and the going back and forth while you’re figuring out what you actually want to say, but I’ve noticed this principle generally creates the best writing. If I were speaking in a more formal setting, I would say things differently. The same goes for writing. I’m not going to write a cover letter to a prospective employer and try to make it sound like I’m chatting with my mom, but I should make it sound natural and professional. But if I’m writing a fun article or blog post, I don’t want to sound like I’m writing an essay about anthropomorphism in William Blake’s poems (I feel like I did write an essay about this, but I can’t be sure).
I used to help my friend with his essays all the time. He had a habit of repeating himself and also writing his sentences in a very confusing way that made his thoughts really hard to follow. I had him read his sentences aloud to see how it sounded to him. This was an easy way to help someone who felt like he wasn’t good at writing to improve. A lot of people tell me they’re terrible at writing, but this is a simple way for “bad writers” to make an improvement. You don’t even have to know the difference between an adjective and adverb to figure this out.
I do freelance writing and when I’m finished with a page, I pretend I’m the star of a commercial for the particular service I’m writing about, and I read what I’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound natural, if there are things that a person would never actually say, I change it. I also write fiction and use this principle when I’m writing a story. I may not write how I would talk, but how the character, or any human being, would. I read dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like real life and that conversations flow. It’s probably best to do this alone, unless your family has just accepted that you kind of talk to yourself.
I’d love to make you passionate about diagramming sentences the way I was, but the truth is I don’t really remember how to do it (that was over six years ago!). However, you can take this golden nugget from my nutty, yet inspirational professor and use it with any type of writing, whether it’s an email to your boss, a proposal to a potential business partner, or the first page of your sci-fi novel.