I once read that writers have no personality, because they save it all up for their book characters. Okay, a bit unfair–but it’s true that I’d rather observe and interesting party than be the life of it.
Les Edgerton, author of Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, argues on our behalf, that our own personality is what best sells our writing. The premise of his book is that writers spend so much energy conforming to English rules and emulating certain styles, that they suck the life out of their own unique style. The voice that we use in telling a friend a story or writing in our own diary—that’s our authentic voice, and we shouldn’t squelch it.
To make his case, Egerton shares examples from both writing legends and students. I gleaned these general points:
- 1. Learn from the masters—but modernize
Over the century’s writing styles have changed, and you’d better conform. Moby Dick may be your favorite book, but no one would publish it today. What agent would wade through the lengthy descriptions of whaling or wait 400 pages to get to the plot? Readers expect a faster pace, less description, and less-formal language.
Edgerton takes a passage from Jane Eyre and analyzes all the old-fashioned rules that are no longer acceptable in writing–like colons, semicolons, ancient spellings and phrases, and oddly- structured sentences such as “Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early.” Don’t do that.
- 2. Break the writing rules
Without insulting English teacher’s everywhere, Edgerton encourages writer’s to forget those nagging guidelines we practiced in high school. Using “said” is better than “screeched,” “groaned” or “gasped.”
Don’t use the wrong synonym just because you already used it two sentences ago. If beguile sounds right and fits best, don’t replace it with the word agreeable, just because it was suggested in the thesaurus. It’s not the right word.
Contemporary readers expect sentence fragments. It’s how they talk. And text.
- 3. Use movies as your transition guide
These days, transitions are increasingly excluded. We’ve acclimated to jump cuts in movies. We were in the Amazon jungle, now we’re in Washington D.C. No plane ride expected. A simple line break will suffice.
- Less backstory, please
Readers are pretty savvy. No need to over-explain, because they’ll either read between the lines or they don’t care if they don’t know everything. Don’t stop to tell who Miss Marple is. If the context is a who-dun-it, they’ll “gather” it.
In Edgerton’s example, he starts with two prison characters playing double sol and smoking tightrolls. I’ve never used the word tightrolls, but “smoking” was a decent clue that it was something like a cigarette. I don’t know double sol, either, but I don’t care enough to look up the game’s rules. It’s not that important. And if it is, I’ll learn more about it during the course of book.
Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory is cited. “Like an iceberg, a good story only shows one-tenth of what lies below.” When the writer does everything for the reader—furnishes everything, dumbs it down–then reading becomes a passive, boring activity.
Because the author of Finding Your Voice is a writing professor, he commonly sees four writing mistakes:
- Sci-fi writers think the “story” should be mostly about technology. (Boring—get to the characters already).
- English students force symbolism into the story. (Most symbolism is subconsciously written in and then “found” by readers, not added on purpose).
- Overdone beginnings. (Allow readers’ intelligence to “get it”).
- Static descriptions. (Deliver descriptions via action, not prose).
How to cure your writing weaknesses?
- Identify your biggest weakness
- Read authors who are strong in that area
- Write a paper on what you’ve learned.
Think of it as taking a free college course. Mental notes are forgotten quicker than when regurgitated–especially for people who learn by reading and like to write. So, cite examples from authors who excel in areas where you do not. Then give yourself an A+ on the paper!
Overall, Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, encouraged writers to be contemporary by breaking the rules. And to realize that readers will be most interested in your own unique voice. So let that great writer personality shine through!