The Grammar Bitch: Finding Your Voice

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?

14 replies on “The Grammar Bitch: Finding Your Voice”

I know I am really late with commenting on this, but I have one little pet peeve to share/add to this.

I use $5 words in normal conversation a lot. It has always been my way, but this means that it leaks over into my writing. I use them correctly and in the right context. I have still been told not to use them because the teacher just doesn’t want their students to use them in general–this was actually told to me by one teacher. Please try not to dismiss them out-of-hand, as it’s frustrating to those of us who it’s a way of life.

On the other hand I either use far too many commas, or not nearly enough. Each edit has me either banishing them or adding a healthy sprinkle to try to balance out whichever mood I was in at the time.

And the lack of contractions might be because their teachers taught them not to use them in a formal context. When writing academic papers it’s forbidden in their books, no matter how weird and stilted the language is.

I remember back in high school lit classes being told time and time again I wrote too informally, too conversation-like. Now, having to write science reports, I stare at blank pages A LOT. My first drafts come back looking like someone took them to the dry cleaner. So boring – yet sounding so much smarter than how I wrote it. ONCE, just ONCE, I was complimented for my unique writing style and I will never forget it. It was one of my thesis advisors and he said he wished more people would write science like I did. That was a good day.

When not writing for school, I actually try to sound more conversational. It’s a habit that started when my sister pointed out that the way I speak and write is rather off-putting- I sound very formal and overly elaborate, I suppose. I think I have gotten pretty good as it by now, but it was a struggle for me for a while there.

Reading that, I think I come across as kind of a pompous ass, but c’est la vie, I suppose.

I’m really quite sure that’s not what gives away your writing, seeing as I’m pathologically addicted to parentheses (I fought hard to keep from putting them in this post only to realize I was adding them anyway for this particular aside. META).

Oh man, thesaurus abuse kills me.
I worked at a place where the person responsible for writing up consent forms and letters that got sent out was a huge thesaurus abuser and also wanted to sound more “legal.” The result were these painfully embarrassing documents with awkward sentence structure and weird words meant to sound professional. It was horrible and looked so much less professional than if the person had toned it down a little.

I tend to write the way I talk because that was the only way I could get past the dreaded White Screen of Doom. I’d sit for hours trying to figure out how to say something “right” until I had a minor epiphany in college when I said “Well, why don’t I just say that?” (Meaning the thing I was trying to figure out how to say.) Since then it’s been interesting. I’ve written more in the last few months than I ever have before and the voice thing has it’s challenges. I’ve found that some phrases that work in spoken form don’t translate into the written word, they just look too weird, so one of my biggest challenges has been to re-phrase things so they look right on the page, but still convey the same tone as the spoken phrase I want to use. I wish I had a specific example, but I can’t think of one right now.

And then there’s the commas. Every time I pause in my typing or thinking I want to add a comma or a capital letter. When I write longhand I sprinkle random capitals everywhere with no rhyme or reason. Apparently I just like them.

Fellow comma abuser here! I’m such a control freak; I truly want the reader to read with the same inflection that I write, so I force them to pause with unnecessary commas (see what I did there?). If I’m editing a final draft I’ll go back and remove all the “style” commas that don’t affect meaning. But I do so with a pouty face.

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