Write like you talk? Yes and no

William Zinsser, On Writing Well:

Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going. … Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.

This is one of the reasons I think I have achieved some success as a writer. And yet so much of my writing is born precisely because I want to write what I would never say in any conversation!

Debunking is the perfect example, because it is nearly impossible to persuade anyone of anything in conversation (at least, not in any one conversation). When dinner party conversation turns to acupuncture or homeopathy, I raise an eyebrow and get fascinated by my wine glass, because I am not Tim Minchin. But when someone goes looking for information about it? When their doubts are aroused and they’re in the market for a thoughtful perspective? For that person, I may have already written something — something I would never have said in conversation, and in a way that I never would have said it.

But to return to Zinnser’s point, he gives a great example of the power of being yourself (E.B. White’s “The Hen (An Appreciation)”), which is a great little excerpt with this gem of an analogy:

At first, as a boy in a carefully zoned suburb, I had neighbors and police to reckon with; my chickens had to be as closely guarded as an underground newspaper.

Perfect! (I love apt analogies. Nothing in my life as a writer has been more elusive or rewarding than the apt analogy.) Zinsser again:

There’s a man writing about a subject I have absolutely no interest in. Yet I enjoy this piece thoroughly.

I have gotten much fan mail of precisely that sort: “I really have no interest in Epsom salts, but I just got caught up in your writing about it.” People even tell me they bought my self-help books “even though I didn’t need them.” There are a hundred things about PainScience.com that make it fun and profitable, but that is the closest thing there is to a “secret” to the whole thing, the soul of good writing: infecting the reader with my own enthusiasm.