One of the keys to clear, engaging writing is to write the way you speak. In other words, your writing should sound like you. Your vocabulary, your cadence, your syntax, your dialect. Your verbal idiosyncrasies. Friends and colleagues should be able to hear your voice in their heads as they read. Communication is a relationship, and to develop an authentic relationship with your reader, your writing – like your speech – should convey not only your opinion, but also a bit of your personality.
For many people who aren’t professional writers, though, this is a huge struggle. They may be eloquent, authoritative and passionate verbally, yet when they try to capture their voice in written words, they come across as stilted and awkward.
There are thousands of exceptional public speakers out there who are, to be blunt, terrible writers. This isn’t a flaw; it’s just a difference: speech is their primary communication modality. Speaking and writing involve different parts of the brain (as do processing speech and the written word); whichever you’ve spent more time developing is going to be the stronger neural pathway.
Each of us has a unique perspective and a natural verbal style with which we communicate that perspective. We have a cadence and vocabulary we’re comfortable with, elements that are influenced by background, education, regional dialect, industry, social influences and personality. We have a unique syntax, a way of seeing and structuring things – and communicating them. Most of us, when we speak, don’t stop to think about each word as it comes out of our mouth, yet often people will try to write that way – one word after another wrenched from the brain. Which is pretty much a recipe for bad writing, not to mention an excruciating process.
If you’re having trouble sounding like yourself, first identify why. Here are some of the top reasons:
- Are you self-critiquing as you write? This hinders anyone, and learning how to effectively use your inner critic – and how to keep him away – is an essential part of learning to write.
- Are you trying to sound like someone other than your authentic self? More authoritative on a given subject? More articulate? Funnier? More educated? Younger? Don’t do this. If you’re trying to create a written persona (and you’re not intentionally doing it as a creative writing exercise), readers will pick up on the split right away, and it will break the bond between you and your and reader.
- Are you expecting it to be perfect on the first draft? You need to release that idea. In my experience, 85% of writing is revision. So give yourself permission to write utter and total crap on that first draft.
One effective technique for writers who struggle to articulate themselves on the page is to use either a digital recorder or voice transcription software like DragonSpeak. I’m a fan of the former, because I find it difficult to be creative while sitting in front of a screen. You can carry a digital recorder with you, and when inspiration hits, just hit record and say what you’re thinking. Imagine you’re explaining the idea to a friend. Then later, transcribe what you’ve said, and voila! You have a rough draft, or at least an outline. (Plenty of experienced writers use this technique, too, because they speak faster than they can type, and/or they’re not always in a location where they can whip out a laptop and write down a draft.)
Another approach is to write first, then read your drafts out loud. You can do this alone or with someone else. Where do you stumble? What sounds awkward to your ear? By listening to your words, you can hear which sections need refinement. As you become more practiced at reading your work out loud, you’ll start to understand intuitively what types of adjustments are called for. Do you have a tendency to write sentences that run on for half a page? Or simple sentences that, strung together, sound staccato? Do you switch tense mid-sentence from past to future to present? You’ll discover where your written voice differs from your spoken voice, and with practice (and maybe some coaching), the two will start to move together into a unified voice.
This challenge – sounding like yourself in writing – is part of why ghostwriters are so popular. Ghostwriting is more than just writing for someone else; it’s writing in their voice, from their perspective, telling their story the way they would tell it. It involves adopting their syntax, vocabulary, personality, cadence, the types of metaphors they are inclined to use, observations they’d be likely to make, the choices they’d make in a given situation. It’s not unlike being an actor, but in writing.
I have the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory (an MP3 memory, if you will). After just a few conversations, I can “hear” voices, accents, inflection, syntax and cadence, among other things, in my head, even if the person has never spoken the words. As an experienced creative writer, I’m pretty good at understanding characters and different perspectives, too. I can often make someone sound more like themselves in writing than they can.
For day-to-day communications, like emails or blogging, the exercises above may help. A writing coach, too, can target where your spoken voice deviates from your written voice – and help you bring them together.
If you’re working on a bigger project, though – a lengthy report or a book – hiring a ghostwriter or collaborator may be a more effective approach.
photo credit: (c) Can Stock Photo
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