Write in Your Own Voice

Do you use “darn” or “dang” instead of “damn”? Or do you avoid swearing at all cost? Do you sprinkle “like” and “you know” into your conversations? How about cool, wicked, bitchin’, or bad? Do you use idiomatic expressions, like “slick as a trout” or “dumb as a box of bricks”? Do you talk in long, rambling sentences or short, snappy phrases – “sentence fragments,” as writing teachers would call them?

Those characteristics are all part of a speaker’s voice – the pattern of speech that makes each of us sound a little different from our friends and a lot different from people who grew up in a different region of the country. Your voice and my voice are not the same, even when you ignore pitch and tone.

A great deal of our communication, however, doesn’t happen with the spoken word. It’s in writing, and in that mode of “speaking,” many of us lose our voices.

Writing Came Second

Somewhere between the ages of four and twenty, the great majority of us manage to learn how to read and write. That makes us literate. But the fact is that we humans are, first and foremost, an oral-aural species. We speak and hear, and evolved our languages long before we developed writing.

Boy learning to speak and read.

We learn to speak, then read.

We learn to speak by listening and mimicking, abilities that come with the human package. It’s our natural way of communicating. Unfortunately, when we try to apply our spoken language to writing, we discover that it’s very easy to be misunderstood. The context of a conversation includes facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice – all of which transmit a great deal of content, making it easier to understand our spoken words.

It also helps that, in a conversation, you can butt in and ask for a quick clarification. A savvy speaker can also judge from your reactions whether you’re getting the message and can try different ways to get it across.

Grammar Stands In for Give-and-Take

With written text, that sort of give-and-take isn’t possible. So we have invented rules of grammar to help keep us from being misunderstood. Grammars for written text are based on the rules for speaking, but they are more rigid and very complex. We spend years in school trying to absorb them, with only partial success.

Blackboard with grammar lesson

How many grammar rules can you list?

To be honest, most people can’t list the rules of written grammar. That takes a special talent and requires being pretty anal-retentive. It’s also a fact that most people don’t need to be grammar gurus (or nerds, if you feel a little resentful about it). Most people can make themselves understood most of the time, in both speech and writing.

Personalities Include Patterns of Speech

The point here is that our personalities include our patterns of speech. After all, they grew up together. I’m not claiming that we are how we speak; only that the total impression we make on other people includes our voice, and not only the pitch and tone, but also the rhythm, dialect, and choice of words – our entire speech pattern.

Teacher Was Wrong

When you were in school, your teachers probably lectured you to get rid of all those slang words and idioms and localisms and run-on sentences. Not to mention the fragments. In other words, to get rid of your voice.

The were wrong. Only academics and journalists need to be that correct – and journalists are usually writing at the sixth-grade level anyway, so they only need to be good with a subset of our language’s grammar.

Voice is very important for getting across your message. It helps you stand out from other people, particularly the ones saying pretty much the same thing. It’s part of who you are, part of your way of living life. It’s the best way you have to express your personal passion for what you like and do, whether you’re talking about your favorite pastime or your chosen profession.

If you want your writing to sound like you wrote it, you should write in your own voice.

But Get the Message Across

You still need to be understood, so you can’t write exactly like you speak. You have to edit yourself, spoon in some rules of grammar, make some adjustments to get the point across. After all, you don’t try to misspell words so they sound more like the way you say them – unless you’re going for a special effect, like using fuhgeddaboudit to parody Brooklyn hoodlumese.

The same applies to punctuation, sentence structure, subject-verb agreement, and all the other complications of grammar. You have to figure out which rules can be bent or broken, and exactly where, so you don’t confuse your readers.

A confused reader will put down the book, toss out your brochure, click to another web page. No one has the time to read things twice, not when we’re all trying to do eight things at once.

Edit Well, Grasshopper

Or Hire an Editor Who Knows Voices

The solution for most of us who need to get our message out in writing is to hire a good editor. That means finding an editor who will take the time to listen carefully to how you speak. They also need to know how to recreate your speech patterns, and do it in a way that can be understood first time through by someone who’s never met you before.

It sounds easy, and it’s worth trying to do yourself. But be warned that you have to be a good listener, a good critic, a good mimic and a bit of an actor – as well as a good writer – to make it work.

Otherwise you run the risk, not only of being misunderstood, but also of sounding like someone you aren’t: an overstuffed college professor, a priggish librarian, a thick-skulled boor, a bit of a jerk, . . . You get the idea.

When you look for an editor:

  • Read some of their work.
  • Get references and follow through by checking them.
  • Give the editor some things that you’ve written.
  • Very important: Give them the time for a long interview about the topic at hand.
  • Read their first draft carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask for changes.
  • Work with them to get your written words right.
  • If they’re not willing to work with you, get someone else next time who is.

After all, we’re talking about your words, and they should sound like you said them.