Write like you talk

4 09 2010

Last night I caught a show that looked back on Anthony Bourdain’s dizzying rise from anonymous chef to New York Times bestselling author and award-winning TV host.

For those who aren’t familiar with Bourdain’s story, he was a career chef who wrote as a hobby, never showing his stuff to anyone but friends. In 1999, one of those friends took an email Bourdain had written and showed it to a friend of his who worked in the publishing industry, and it led to Bourdain’s now famous article in The New Yorker titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” That article led to a 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, andever since, the straight-talking Manhattanite has been everywhere:

An Emmy Award-winning food and travel show. Two more New York Times bestselling nonfiction books. Essays and articles in many of the finest magazines and newspapers in the world. And on and on.

During one scene in the TV show that reflects on Bourdain’s remarkable rise, he is asked what his secret is. How has he — someone with no formal training — become one of the most successful writers in the world?

“I write like I talk,” he says, seeming a little surprised that it’s not that obvious to everyone.

Bourdain isn’t the first to identify the importance of “writing like you talk,” but he is a great example of how far it can take you.

Most of the best writing is conversational. It’s like hearing a great story from a friend. Whether you are writing a novel or creating an ad campaign, all you are really doing is telling a story. This is a crucial idea for every writer to keep in mind. It keeps your writing from becoming mechanical and boring.

From Bourdain’s Travel Channel blog:

“So much of a place reveals itself off camera. It’s why I stopped taking photographs of my travels years ago. You miss everything. What you won’t see on the show — but should probably know about Brittany (France) — is that always, constantly — in the moments between scenes, when the crew sits down for a break, when the show’s over, cameras put aside, there’s food. Delicious, delicious things coming at us from every direction. Mountain ranges of shellfish tower everywhere you look: oysters, lobsters, crabs, periwinkles, clams, shrimp and prawns.”

Bourdain is a pretty insightful guy, and he’s been all over the world, so it makes sense that he has lots of good stories to tell. But it’s the way he tells them that makes his writing so effective. Short, punchy sentences. Lots of detail. You feel like he enjoys sharing the story with you as much as you enjoy reading it.

Bourdain doesn’t have to work doubles in a hot kitchen anymore. He doesn’t have to worry about how he is going to pay his rent either. And it’s all because he’s mastered the art of writing like he talks.

Doing the same won’t necessarily get you on the New York Times bestseller list, but it will make you a better writer.

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3 responses

4 09 2010
Ollin

Great post! What a fascinating story. “Published through means of e-mail to friend.” That’s so random and wonderful. Thanks!

15 09 2010
Alex Mitchell

Thanks Ollin! “Write like you talk” is a great way to keep your writing from becoming stiff and boring. When you run into a road block as a writer, just listen to the voice in your head and go from there.

6 07 2011
A cover letter for the ages « Wordsmith

[…] Thompson writes in a conversational tone. Nothing mechanical or boring about it. In a recent post about Anthony Bourdain, I referred to it as “writing like you […]

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