Conversing About Conversational Tone

It occurred to me the other day how often I’ve given the advice to “go for a conversational tone.” I’ve said it to students, to writers, and to fellow editors. I say it like everyone should know what I mean by “conversational tone,” and yet I rarely actually define it.

So, what do I mean by “conversational tone”?

Turns out, conversational tone isn’t actually the way we converse with one another. Listen to yourself talk with your friends, even though it will probably make you self-conscious for a while. You probably use a lot of filler words (like, you know, uh, so, actually, apparently—those are a few of my personal crutches). You may also leave a lot of things implied or unfinished. Once I’m certain the person I’m talking to sees where I’m headed, I’ll often just trail off rather than saying the rest of the words. Run on sentences are par for the course in conversation, as inflection and context fill in meaning for the words we leave out and the sentences we mash together.

But none of these things work well in writing, so they all get edited out when I’m aiming for conversational tone.

Maybe conversational tone mimics more formal conversation, like talking with your boss or your elderly neighbor? Turns out that isn’t a good guide, either. That typically brings back all the stilted phrasing and big words that a conversational tone is supposed to avoid.

Conversational tone in writing doesn’t sound a lot like verbal conversation. (Although I suppose it might be the idealized version of what our conversations would sound like if we could write out our thoughts and then have people edit them before we actually spoke them.)

So what are the hallmarks of writing in a conversational tone?

The most obvious one is that you get to break about half the rules that were drilled into your head in school.

1. Please use contractions, pretty much any time you can, especially with pronouns and negatives—he’s, she’d, they’ll, don’t, isn’t, etc. The exceptions are when you want to stress the negative (“You do not want to do that” comes with an implied emphasis on the “not” that isn’t present in “You don’t want to do that.”) or when it would just look weird and confusing. And yeah, that’s a personal call.

2. Some short sentences are good. Even fragments. It’s a stylistic choice. You want to make sure that you don’t sacrifice clarity and that you don’t overuse this technique. Fragments in particular. But they work well to create clear lists of examples (“I love to read fantasy. And romances. And historical fiction. And historical romantic fantasies.”) and they can work to emphasize a point, making it stand out without extra words around it. You can even make a short sentence or fragment stand as its own paragraph.

Really, you can.

3. Ignore rules that lead to tortured sentence structure. Go ahead and end that sentence with a preposition. Use “who” instead of “whom.” I’m even ok with splitting infinitives if it makes the sentence flow better.

Aside from the blatant disregard for your 5th grade grammar lessons, another thing that defines conversational style is language.

Don’t drag out the SAT words that some well meaning high school teacher made you memorize. When simpler phrasing will work, go with that. Here’s where game books and fiction diverge a little—if you’re writing fiction and you want to expand the reader’s vocabulary, go for it. Context will probably provide enough of a definition. If you’re writing a game book, however, keep your vocabulary recognizable. Your purpose isn’t to explore the beauty of language but to be extremely clear as you explain rules and setting. Whether fiction or game books, if your readers need to keep a dictionary handy to understand your writing, they will start to get annoyed.

It’s ok to use some slang and casual phrases, although you probably want to avoid anything too regional unless your audience is only people from that region. You also need to make sure you aren’t sounding like that sad adult trying to use another generation’s slang. But as long as you’re comfortable with the language you’re using, it’s fine to use words and phrases that you wouldn’t normally include in formal writing.

Profanity fits into this category, though with even more caveats. First, unless you’re really talented with creative profanity (read Chuck Wendig or watch Deadwood), it just gets boring and people will start skipping the swear words and thus skimming whatever important thing you’re trying to say. Excessive use of profanity robs it of any impact. Any time you’re tempted to use profanity, think about whether that’s the word/phrase you really want or if you’re just being too lazy to come up with something better. That said, it’s not uncommon for at least mild profanity (such as hell or damn) to be part of a conversational tone. If you’re doing work for hire, you absolutely want to know your publisher’s stance on using profanity.

There are probably some other things that define a conversational tone, and I’m sure someone will quibble with some of my points, but hopefully this at least serves as a conversation starter. (Ha! And yes, you can usually get away with some wordplay when writing conversationally.)


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