How to write like you speak

Published (updated: ) in working in the open.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Write like you speak” a thousand times before, but actually writing like that doesn’t come easily to lots of people. It’s a skill that takes time to master.

So for most people, the easiest way to write like you speak is to write by speaking: step away from the keyboard, go for a walk, and talk to thin air about what you need to put down on paper.

This will feel weird, and you might feel self-conscious doing it. The first few things you say might sound stilted and awkward. But, after a while, you’ll find yourself saying good snippets and sentences. Carry a notebook or stack of stickies, and note down the good stuff as you go.

Walking is optional; you can also talk to a wall, to the washing up, to a patient partner or child, to yourself in a darkened room. It doesn’t really matter who the listener is, it’s the speaking that does the trick.

Ways to start speaking

Here are some other techniques you can use to force yourself to say your words out loud:

  • Stand in front of a whiteboard, and draw what you need to write about. Narrate your drawing out loud.
  • Phone a friend, and talk it through with them. At the end of the chat, ask them to explain back to you what you think you’ve explained to them. If they got it right, you probably used the right words.
  • Use the tea break method: make a cup of tea (or your beverage of choice) and make a point of sitting somewhere you’d normally sit to relax. Your favourite armchair, or your favourite kitchen chair, or in your local cafe (when we can use cafes again). The point is to feel like you do when you’re relaxed. Now, talk to yourself (muttering is ok if you’re in public). Write down the good bits.
  • Talk it through with a dog, or any other pet. Conduct a one-way conversation with your canine, or have a chat with your chat. If this co-incides with walkies, all the better. The point here is that having a non-human companion to talk to makes it easier to talk. Dogs can’t give much helpful feedback, but the look in their eyes gives you everything you need in terms of encouragement.

Getting to a bad first draft

All this talking out loud might leave you with a dry throat, but it should also leave you with some scribbled notes on paper, or on your whiteboard, or somewhere.

These notes might not make much of a structured narrative yet, but that’s normal.

It’s a good idea to spread these notes out (if they’re already on stickies or index cards, this is much easier) and look at them as a collection of high-level thoughts.

Try moving them around. See if you can build a structure from what you’ve got. You might spot holes or gaps – don’t worry, just notice that they’re there, and keep going. You can fill the gaps later.

At this point, you might find you’ve already got enough for a bad first draft.

You’ve already made good progress. Your dog will be delighted.


Giles Turnbull helps organisations communicate more like humans do: briefly, clearly, creatively. Find out more at www.usethehumanvoice.com.

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