Punctuality Rules!

Is What You Write More Important than How You Write it?

Is What You Write More Important than How You Write it?

Write the Way You Talk

RF4536233You have heard this “rule,” haven’t you? It’s all the rage these days. Internet gurus tell their initiates that all they need to do to gain thousands of readers or sell gazillions of widgets is to simply Write the Way You Talk. They insist that a dependence on grammar rules is not as important as simply saying what you need to say, without getting bogged down by pesky grammatical details.

This is a topic that actually gets discussed in my house. When my father gets some kind of marketing piece that sounds convincing and interesting, he doesn’t let a few mis-spellings or grammatical no-nos get in his way. After all, you don’t need to have been an English major in college to know good business, right? A go-get-’em entrepreneur isn’t going to let concern over the placement of an apostrophe slow him down when there’s money to be made and people to sell. His feeling is that a person’s verbal skills do not necessarily reflect their intelligence (true) or their competence (um…).

But What about the First Impression?

My mother and I, on the other hand, feel that sloppiness in the sales materials implies sloppiness in the product–or in the salesperson. That, if you can’t be bothered to proof-read the copy that’s supposed to convince people to buy your product, how can we be sure that the product is any better?

All in all, it brings up an interesting dichotomy.

Now, I’m the first one to admit that I may be more of a stickler than other readers (cough). But then, I like things neat, tidy, and organized. Piles of papers have to have their corners aligned. Crooked pictures drive me batty. I like things to be correct, accepting no substitutions.

Do You Have to be Correct to be Good?

I know, of course, that people and their writing are imperfect. I also fully embrace the fact that “good” writing is not necessarily the same as “correct” writing (especially in a sales pitch). Finding one typo in an email emphatically does not make me assume that the writer is an incompetent, lazy slob who dozed through English class in 7th grade. It just makes me assume the writer is human–which is preferable than one that is, say, a computer, or inhumanly perfect (because that would just be annoying, really). A breezy letter with a folksy tone wouldn’t sound right in itself without contractions and a certain amount of casual grammar usage.

But when there are multiple errors, and the apostrophe for “don’t” is after the “D”, I really start wondering about who is writing this thing. How smart can they actually be if they cannot spell “your” correctly?

Have you ever gone to look at a house and been greeted by a whiff of cinnamon, or baking bread, and thought “Wow, this is fabulous. So welcoming! They obviously know what they’re doing.”

First Impressions Do Matter

It all goes back to that First Impression business. A person in a suit is going to be taken more seriously than a person in a clown costume. (Crazy, right?) A house with a tidy yard is going to look more appealing than one that looks like a junk yard. A shiny, polished, immaculate car is going to inspire more interest than one that looks like it just came out of a war zone.

You don’t have to be perfect. But it never hurts to look like you know what you’re doing. And if you can’t string four sentences together without egregious abuses to the laws of grammar, you’re not going to inspire my confidence.

10 thoughts on “Is What You Write More Important than How You Write it?

  1. Lillie Ammann


    I’m in the paradoxical position of agreeing with you on grammar and spelling but generally advising people to write the way they talk (as in my recent series on writing memoir and family history). By that, however, I don’t mean make errors. I mean use the words and sentence structure that you ordinarily use. Too many people, in my opinion, try to sound impressive and important and end up with stuffy, stilted, difficult-to-read writing.

    Sales copy and business documents should be error-free (though none of us is perfect and sometimes a mistake slips through). But I think they should usually be written in a conversational tone rather than sounding like an academic tome.

    Lillie Ammann’s last blog post..National Day of Prayer 2009

  2. Brad Shorr

    Hi Deb, I agree with Lillie 2/3 of the way. Grammar and spelling should be correct in sales and marketing material. It’s as simple as employing a proofreader or outsourcing the work. In terms of tone, I think it depends on the audience and services rendered. It makes sense for a law firm or an academic institution to take a more formal tone than a car dealership or pet store.

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..Is Your Website Working? Take The Content Competence Quiz

  3. --Deb Post author

    I absolutely, postively think that writing the way you speak is the best and most natural way to write, and barring high-tech kinds of writing like legal and medical kinds of things, it’s to be preferred to anything stilted and stiff.

    BUT. Too many people take the “Write the way you talk” rule as permission to write sloppily and not worry about the details, any more than you worry about the balance of your sentences when you’re catching up on the latest gossip with your friends.

  4. J

    One problem is that people think they’re writing the way they talk, but they’re not. There’s no difference in the sound of ‘their’, ‘there’, and ‘they’re’, so it’s not caught by the ear.

    I agree that people need to think of what kind of impression they’re making. When I see ‘loose’ when the person means to say ‘lose’, that’s laziness and a bad habit. It sets a poor first impression, and it tells me you don’t care about what you’re writing. And, unlike the ‘their’ example, ‘loose’ and ‘lose’ do NOT sound the same. 😉

    J’s last blog post..Pasta Ponza

  5. John Soares

    I pay close attention to how well sales pages and ebooks and manuals are written. If the writer isn’t willing to pay a relatively small amount of money to have his work edited, where else is he cutting corners?

    I joined an Internet marketing continuity site a few months ago from one of the top names in the field. However, I canceled immediately when I saw how sloppy his main manual was — missing words, missing information, formatting problems, misspelled words, grammar, punctuation, etc.

    John Soares’s last blog post..How Writing College Textbook Supplements Helps Your Writing Career – and Could Get You a Job with a Textbook Publisher

  6. Becky

    I’ve always thought that ‘writing like you talk’ means maintaining a chatty, natural tone rather than feeling free to throw all the laws of grammar and punctuation out of the window.

    Typos happen and homonyms can catch out even people who know better. (The number of times I end up editing a blog post because I suddenly realise I used the wrong word in it is embarrassing), so I tend to cut people some slack, but consistently making the same mistakes is the sign of a problem. (To be fair I have problems – I have terrible trouble with effect/affect to the degree I with try and avoid using them because I know I’ll get it wrong if I do. At least I know I have problems.)

    People say that people don’t speak gramatically, but what they mean is people don’t speak with formal grammar. There are still rules in spoken language – just not as many. Fragments are a good example of a formal grammar rule, that doesn’t apply in speech. And if a grammatical fragment works in context I’ll use it in writing as well. Starting sentences and even paragraphs with conjunctions is another thing that’s acceptable in speech, but not in formal grammar.

    But it’s not the people who make mistakes – even consistently make mistakes – who really offend me. It’s the ones who if you politely point out they’re using a hononym and it looks sloppy get stroppy with you and tell you not to be a pedant.

    I’ll shut up now, because I’m rambling again.

    Becky’s last blog post..Writing Progress Report and Plans

  7. Sandy

    Please stop abusing hyphens. Drat. I hoped to find a clean blog, but instead I found myself navigating over the usual humps. Inappropriate punctuation is, to me, like a pothole in the road. I long for a ride on a smooth, clean, open verbal road.