As I’ve mentioned again and again, I’m a huge proponent of writing in a conversational style. For many people, this is a difficult thing to do, mostly because it’s been drilled into them from early on that writing is formal and should sound neutral and bland. For some types of writing, this is absolutely true. Certain types of academic papers, legal writing, and technical writing are all examples of more formal styles that should be more standardized than personalized. What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is how much of their own voice comes though in even the most formal styles of writing.
I’ve been copyediting here at Persephone for a few months now. (I know; it seems longer than that, right?) In that time, I’ve gotten to know our writers’ personal styles very well. I have the advantage of generally editing more personal essay-type pieces; works in which a writer’s voice is front and center. But even in our news, politics, and educational posts, I can generally tell you who I’m editing without looking at the byline. The way a writer uses (or doesn’t use) punctuation, contractions, and certain sentence constructions all tell a reader something about who’s writing. Every writer, here and out there in the big wide world, has his or her own voice, and it serves as a foundation for everything that they write.
Why am I talking about this? Mostly because so many people try to stifle their own style in order to sound differently. They think that removing the part of their personality that shows in their writing will make them sound more professional, more polished, or more neutral. From an editorial standpoint, I can tell you that more often than not, what it does is make the piece sound stilted and unnatural. Avoiding contractions because you think they’re “too casual” often makes your work read like a weird translation of a foreign instruction manual. Choosing a word because you think that it sounds “better” or makes you sound smarter or more educated makes that word jump out at the reader. It doesn’t belong. Go with the words that are in your head. The more natural your word choice, the easier your piece will be both to write and to read.
So how do you find your voice? How do you silence your inner editor who’s telling you that your writing sounds too casual or that you should use a more impressive word choice? For me, I find that writing out a first draft as though I were telling a story, even a really boring story about an obscure academic subject, fixes my “voice” firmly in place. If you look at successful academic, legal, and technical pieces, you’ll find their success is generally due to their accessibility. If a piece is easy to understand, it’ll reach a wider audience. For a piece to be easy to understand, it has to flow. For it to flow, the writer needs to use their own voice to tell the story.
Go back and read your own work. If you have a hard time reading it at a good pace without stumbling over words or phrases, chances are, you’ve altered your own voice. Take the idea that you’re trying to convey, and just write it out how it sounds in your head, without stopping to think about what might be a more impressive word or studious-sounding turn of phrase. You’ll find this will help you in a number of ways, not least of which is that you’ll be able to produce far many more words in a much shorter time than you could if you were second-guessing everything that made its way onto the page. College may be a distant memory for me, but I recall all too clearly trying to figure out how the heck I was going to write two thousand words on whatever boring and esoteric subject my professors deemed important for that week. Looking back, I realize that part of the reason my assignments often took me so long and were so difficult is because I was trying to write my papers as though I were writing a textbook: dull, neutral, and unnecessarily wordy. My most successful assignments, and to this day, my most successful works in general, were the ones that I wrote in my own voice.
How about you, readers and writers? Do you find yourself trying to tamp down the parts of your personality that want to come through in your writing? How do you overcome your inner editor?