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When learning the formal rules of English grammar and style, you may have learned grammar rules like “don’t use contractions,” “always write in full sentences,” and “never begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.” Here’s the thing: There are plenty of good reasons to break these rules, especially if you’re writing conversationally.
Why Write Conversationally?
Writing in a more conversational tone helps people feel like they are being addressed personally, on their own level. Formal writing, in contrast, can create a barrier for readers and is best reserved for those places where authority and distance are required, like academic papers and official communications. If you’re blogging, copywriting, or writing for an email or content marketing initiative, a conversational style can help you connect with your readers on an immediate level while increasing readability.
7 Tips for Writing Conversationally
Good conversational writing creates an immediate connection and doesn’t waste your reader’s time.
- Pay attention to the way people speak. Your goal is to sound like a real human being having a two-way conversation, not a piece of anonymous academic or business writing. A real person uses contractions, speak in fragments, and use reflexive pronouns like “I” and “we.” While this may go against the grammar rules you picked up in a high school writing class, this works best for conversational writing because this is how we talk. (Try to avoid filler words like “uhh” and “umm.”)
- Write in short sentences. When it comes to readability, shorter tends to be better. We don’t often speak in long monologues, and long sentences run the risk of losing the thread. Focus on getting to the point, and avoid writing paragraphs with more than four or five sentences.
- Watch out for the passive voice. Passive voice is when the subject doing the action is the object of the sentence. That is, writing something like “The ball was caught by the dog” rather than simply “The dog caught the ball.” See how the first version, which is written in the passive voice, sounds clunky and awkward? In your conversational writing, try to use the active voice—make sure that the thing doing the action is the subject of your sentences.
- Develop your own voice. As a writer, it’s important to develop a sense of your own speech rhythms and vocabulary. What words do you tend to naturally use, and which do you avoid? If you aren’t sure what your voice sounds like, try keeping a casual journal or blog for a few weeks, and then go back read your own blog. Your most natural, conversational tone is the one you use with yourself.
- Read your writing out loud. Reading your work out loud will help you determine if your writing flows in the same way that you speak. You might notice that you use words you don’t normally say, or that you cram too many ideas in. Read your first draft out loud and pay attention to where you pause for breath—if your breaths fall in the middle of a sentence, these are excellent points to stop and rewrite. Find David Sedaris's tips for improving your writing by reading aloud here.
- Know your audience and your situation. Who is your target audience? Are they young music fans, or elderly mystery novel aficionados? There are different kinds and degrees of informality, and the right note to strike will depend on who you’re writing to. Part of developing your writing skills is knowing how to write to different groups as though you were a member of that group.
- Know when a little formality is appropriate. Even if most of your writing is more conversational in style, there may still be times when a little formality is called for. For instance, when writing about subjects where the reader may be looking for guidance—like financial, legal, or medical information—you’ll want to strike a more professional tone to show that you’re trustworthy.
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