Writing Simply/Writing Like You Talk

Mark Paxson

A few days ago, Berthold published a post over on his blog, How Simply Should You Write? The post was in response to some essays by Paul Graham, who has written quite a few essays on a range of topics.

In a nutshell, Graham thinks that one whould write simply and also write the way one talks. Each of those concepts pretty much speak for themselves. Write simply means, well, to write simple. Keep it simple, stupid, in other words. Short simple sentences are better than long, convoluted ones. Be clear, don’t be muddled. Go for understandable words and constructs and don’t try to impress with big words or bigger sentences. From Graham’s perspective, complex writing is more difficult to read, it hides ideas rather than reveals them, and to him at least, complex writing is clumsy writing.

Writing the way one talks is a companion concept. He uses an example: “The mercurial Spaniard himself declared: ‘After Altmira, all is decadence.'” Graham suggests that nobody would talk like this. He can’t imagine anybody calling somebody else mercurial in the course of conversation. His essay on this topic bleeds into the write simply concept, He basically says that his objective is to write in language he would use in conversation. He wants it to be simple and to sound in written form comparable to spoken language. To Graham, spoken language is easier and less complex than written language.

Meanwhile, Berthold disagrees. He points to a couple of examples from George Orwell and Oscar Wilde as evidence that great writers throughout time did not write simply or write the way people talk. He also makes a point that Graham assumes too much about how other people may talk. Maybe Graham wouldn’t describe Picasso as “the mercurial Spaniard,” but Berthold certainly would!!!

Which gets back to the point I always make when somebody tries to suggest there is a “rule” to writing. It depends. It depends on you as the writer. It depends on you as the reader. It depends on all the other readers who might be reading your work.

It also depends on something else, particularly if we’re talking about fiction. How does the narrator talk and think? How do the characters engaged in dialogue talk and act? For instance, one of the things I started a few years ago is a series of short stories, that may become a novel, based on some characters who work for a traveling carnival/circus. The characters in this piece simply don’t talk the way I do. They have a different rhythm, a different language, slang that I’ve never heard off. It would make no sense then for me to write it the way I talk. No, instead, I have to completely strip away the idea of how I talk and, as I’m writing that story, talk in a way that is alien to me. In some respects, it’s kind of like method acting. If I’m ever to complete that story, I’ll have to immerse myself into the rhthym and flow, the accent and the slang, of a group of traveling carnies.

That said … I do think there’s value in what Graham says and with Berthold’s caveats in mind. I think the most important thing we can do as writers is to not make reading a challenge. Zoe Keithley, a wonderful woman who led some writing exercises I attended for several years, always said, don’t make it too hard on the reader. If a story is too difficult to read, the writer is going to lose a lot of readers. So, I agree in general with the concept of writing simply.

But there are degrees to simplicity. Nobody wants to read stories written in the Dick and Jane style, unless they’re teachers of reading in the early grades. Graham has a couple of good suggestions. Write a draft, just let it go and write (something I still haven’t figured out how to do). And then, go back and see how it sounds. Read it out loud. See if you can follow it. Does it sound normal? Or are there places where it’s obvious you’re trying to force something? Okay that last one is really my idea and I think that’s where I realize I’m getting too complicated in my writing. When I go back, and say “huh, that doesn’t sound right. What was I … oh wait, I could cut out half of this sentence, rearrange this, and then … much better.”

In conclusion, I want to go back to that “mercurial Spaniard” criticism. That stuck in Berthold’s craw and it is, in some respects, contrary to so much of what we are told as writers. Don’t use cliches, be unique, make things interesting. And I agree with those things. Maybe one wouldn’t refer to Picasso as a mercurial Spaniard in conversation (although Berthold disagrees), when reading a story … that’s part of the pleasure in reading. Seeing things, words and phrases, that you generally don’t see or hear in normal conversation. It’s what keeps fiction fresh and worth coming back to. How does this writer make another marriage gone wrong sound fresh and worth reading? How does that writer make another murder mystery unique and worth turning the pages? Through different words, different takes, different ways of presenting the pieces of the story.

So, yeah, keep it simple, stupid … but, don’t kill the uniqueness of your story by over-simplifying it. Yes, write the way you talk …. no wait, rewind … write the way your narrators and your characters talk. Push the edges and stretch your imagination. Don’t write the way you talk, write the way the people you have created would talk. And maybe, just maybe, one of them would refer to Picasso as that “mercurial Spaniard.”


  1. In a critique group once, someone objected when one of my characters used the word “aforementioned,” saying no one would ever do that. Well, it isn’t a word you hear every day, but it suited that character’s style.
    And I like the idea of finding the right voice for characters who are different from us. Fiction would be pretty boring–or weird–if everyone sounded like the author.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. kingmidget says:

      Exactly. I meant to make that point … that fiction would be boring if it all sounded like the author.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. lydiaschoch says:

    It’s been so interesting to follow the evolution of this conversation! 🙂 It’s like we’re all sitting in a coffee shop together.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. kingmidget says:

      It’s an interesting topic. I’m glad Berthold shared his thoughts. I’m sure there is plenty more evolution on the topic!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Chuck Litka says:

    As a reader I enjoy witty, clever, inventive writing. P G Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, Patrick O’Brien, and Jasper Fforde spring to mind as examples. These are writers whose writing I enjoy irrespective of the story they’re telling. Or as Raymond Chandler put it, “I guess maybe there are two types of writers, writers who write stories and writers who write writing.” As a writer, I would like to be, like Chandler, a writer of writing, but… Alas.

    Liked by 2 people

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