Friday, October 4, 2013

Let’s Talk Writing III


Words are the voice of the heart. 
- Confucious 

For Session1: A Skillful Understanding link here.
For Session 2: Playing the Lead : Your Role as a Writer link here.

"Find your voice!" they (the mysterious they) say all the time. Your authentic voice. Your unique voice. The voice that is distinctly you.

Yes, we as writers or as budding writers hear this constantly, the same refrain, the same charge, over and over again. And we nod our heads knowingly, “Oh, of course! My voice!” Yet, what does this even mean? What is our own authentic, unique, distinctive voice? And how do we find it? How do we recognize it? Well, let’s think about this for a minute.
Voice. Obviously, when speaking of our writer’s voice, we are talking about a mix of several things: the words and language used to express our thoughts; the tone and style, the personality that comes across on the page. "My readers, when they meet me in person, tell me that I write just like I speak (or sound just like I write)!" so many bloggers tell me. Does this mean that we should simply write the same way, with the same words with which we speak? Is it good enough to just put down on paper what we say aloud? Is it that easy? Well, yes and no. Yes, this is the first step towards finding that writer’s voice, yet it isn’t always that simple, and it doesn’t always stop there.

Think about the way you speak to family and friends. I’ll bet that it is dotted and punctuated with a smattering of cultural references, slang, colorful language or curse words, inside jokes and personal references understood only by a few. Not to mention the occasional half sentence or grammatical error. Personally, I have read several blogs in which the writer/blogger attempts to get all of this down in the blog post (“Mooooore pancakes! ("but you have to say it like, “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”) Not the Shining one ; the Johnny Carson One.") or ("It’s for those times when it feels like the holidays are jumping directly up your butt, and you’re wondering what sadist put Cinco de Mayo, the Derby and Mother’s Day in the same week because your dog is still hacking up Easter grass."). So if we just put down into print what we say when we speak aloud, there is the risk that much of what we say will be lost on too many of our readers who don’t understand the cultural or personal references or who are turned off by the slang, the “colorful” language or the bad grammar.

There is often a transformation or some kind of shift that happens between brain – speaking and thinking voice – and paper. For some, this shift is natural and one doesn’t even think of it: we automatically correct grammar, adjust or eliminate personal or cultural references, shift into “grownup” or “company” mode. For others, this transformation is conscious and mindful: words are carefully chosen, often from a well-thumbed thesaurus, ideas and story lines are thought through and reorganized to sound like something the author has read. This can work extremely well for the writer. But, again, there is a risk: this can often lead to writing that is “overdone”: the use of words or phrases that the writer or blogger normally does not use in everyday speech, a way of writing that the blogger assumes sounds “writerly”. This type of writing can sound stilted, unnatural, stiff. ("We first splash a cup of cool water into the shimmering silver pan, clouding the clarity with a dusting of frosted flour.") or ("My fingers very soon became sticky and dripping with fragrant peach juices.") Again, at the risk of turning off readers who feel the discomfort or the effort, the exertion.

Where is the middle ground? How does one find the perfect balance?

We must actively search for our voice, and clear a path for it to emerge. One’s voice is uncovered, not manufactured.

Basically, yes, you want to sound like YOU when you write, but a better you. A refined you, a purposeful you. You want your writing to be recognizable as you, distinctively you; just as someone will hear your voice or your laughter, listen to you express yourself and know it is you, your written voice should be just as familiar. But thought out, written expressly for an audience. But how?

1) Speak out loud, speak to yourself: as you prepare a blog post, tell the story out loud, to another person, to your reflection in the mirror, to the dog – listen to the way you tell that story or describe an experience or discuss your favorite spice. Say it naturally, as to a friend, not necessarily as you would tell it to Oprah. Be comfortable with it, be comfortable with the language you use. Then write it down. Then edit it, adjust it and read it aloud again. And again. This doesn’t even need to be published…this could simply be for practice. In fact, do this for practice.


2) Write a blog post, read it aloud and ask yourself if this is really how you speak? If not, well, start over.

3) Read and experiment. You think your writing is too casual, too simple, doesn’t sound like a writer (whatever that sounds like)? Before you try and change your writing to sound more this way or less that way, change the way you speak, increase your speaking vocabulary… read. Read and absorb. And speak. A lot. Change the way you speak to others before changing the way you write for others. Practice.

4) Get to know your readers…. Decide who you want to write for. Will readers understand your language, your references, your jokes? Or does your writing fly above the heads of the average reader? Have someone else read a few of your past posts and listen to what they have to say about it. Make conscious choices when you transcribe that speaking voice onto paper, when you write, without changing the fundamentals of what you want to say or even how you express yourself.

5) Don’t forget that people will form an impression of you and who you are from your writing, how you write, the language you use, the things you say. They will decide whether you are funny, smart, serious, knowledgeable… but also whether or not you are silly, insincere, or acting, and whether you are professional or not. How do you want your readers to see you?

Writing, as I have said before, is a constant learning experience, a constant quest. Know why you are blogging or writing, who you are writing or blogging for. Think of your writing as if it was a musical instrument… you want to practice and get better. You want to enjoy playing and have others enjoy listening. You may want to play that instrument just for fun or you may want to sound like a professional musician. But either way, you want the instrument to feel comfortable in your hands and sound natural, easy but worth listening to.

- Practice. Read. Write.

- Find someone who will read what you write and give you honest feedback, both the positive and the negative. Take a writing workshop if you can and listen to the feedback carefully.

- Play little writing games: write something in your own voice (as you write now). Then rewrite the same in someone else’s voice, as someone else, a character in a book or someone who may be the complete opposite of you. Try different voices on for size, see what each character makes you write about, the vocabulary and the expressions that character makes you use and understand why. And then figure out what feels natural to the writer who you are.

Your mind knows only some things. Your inner voice, your instinct, knows everything. 
If you listen to what you know instinctively, it will always lead you down the right path. 
Henry Winkler


Ilva&Jamie said...

I loooove this series of posts, you sound even better than in real life baby! keep them coming

Renee Goerger said...

I love your recommendations to read what you've written out loud to your dog to see how it sounds and also to write the same article from the perspective of someone else. Very helpful. Thanks!

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Insightful tips. I totally agree with what you say. I try to follow those rules as much as possible. And yes, practice is the key to success!



Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things said...

Great advice, here Jamie!

Sam Hoffer @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

Once again you've done an excellent job Jamie.

For several years I attended writing classes and also was part of a writer’s critique group when I was working on my memoir. Both strongly emphasized feedback and reading your work out loud. When you read out loud you also find the mistakes you missed while proofreading or the words you accidently left out.

Thank you for taking on this complicated subject. I look forward to the next post in your series.

Barb | Creative Culinary said...

I am a bad writer...I'm that one that just has my fingers typing my stream of consciousness; probably not good in many ways but just what I do and yes, probably what I will continue to do. Mostly because this is easy...(there's those damn dots I love!) and doesn't make writing a chore.

You know it's not why I blog so if it became a chore or even a job I would hate it. I just barely tolerate it as is! Still, I see the value in what you propose for those that feel that gift and want to improve; nice articles.

Brooks said...

When I'm not writing from that instinctual place, I'm stuck in park and inspiration wanes. This series is an eye-opener. More and more I see it's all there inside yearning to be uncovered. Thank you for peeling back a corner, Jamie, so the unearthing begins.

Tameka Brown said...

This post is just what I needed this morning. I am launching an online magazine next month, and I was thinking whether or not I was flexing my writing muscles enough. I will get to work on some more articles after reading this great information.

Asha Shivakumar said...

I need all the tips and they are some great ones here.
Love reading your posts. I will take my time in going through the links and books. Thanks for all the info.

Amanda Hawkins said...

Timely. Why is it we must be reminded of such simplicities again. And again. And again. It's meditative warfare. So, thanks.

Aparna said...

Keep them coming, Jamie. Its getting better and better. :)

Ivy said...

Great tips. I think I am a bit more serious when writing a blog post than in my everyday life. What I dislike the most in reading recipes is people getting carried away and blurbing over useless information and the opposite people writing as if they are sending telegraphs or sms.
Here's an idea: how about in another post, your choose a number of people (say from three to five, which will meet your available time), who will leave a comment to your post, you randomly select them, read their posts and give them an honest critique :)

Jamie said...

@Renee Goerger: and you have two to give you feedback!

@Rosa: I always love to read your posts, they are an odd and unique mix of you in the raw (if you see what I mean) and the very poetic which I love.

@Sam Hoffer: your support and feedback is so important to me and so appreciated! xo

@Barb: you are too smart to be a bad writer. You make no effort because you don't want to be a writer, yet the person that you are pays attention, makes it clear, well written, thoughtful. You are a wonderful writer.

Jamie said...

@Brooks and @Amanda: I want these posts to inspire thought.... we do indeed constantly need to be reminded, to have someone or something make us think and reflect even over things we have learned in the past but no longer think about, whether big things or little things. I do hope my posts get you all to slow down and react, look at things in a different way and be inspired anew.

Thank you both so very much for the comments and encourgement. And Brooks xoxo a huge thank you for sharing!

@Ivy: that's quite an interesting idea and I have been trying to figure out how to do something like that. Good idea and once I go further into the topic, maybe I will do this!

Robin O said...

An excellent and thoughtful guide to encourage writers to think about more than just getting the words on the page. The tone, the language and yes, the voice. It has taken me forever to let go of the outside noise to write in my voice. And it is thanks to you for giving me courage to continue to practice, out loud and in front of everybody.

Excellent series oh mentor mine.

Nicole said...

A constant quest, just like everything else we seek to do well, isn't it. Ah, we can never give up in this life journey- constantly striving to do better, be better. Thanks for all this advice.

Cheryl Bennett said...

Love this, My Friend!!! Brilliant as always. xo

mjskit said...

Great post! Thank you for the hints on how to find your voice. I've been a technical writer for 30 years so I'm always struggling with being to "stiff" and technical. I love your idea of writing the post verbally before putting it to the page. Thanks!

Elizabeth said...

I found myself holding up my hand when I saw the "Mooooore pancakes!".

But I still wonder if in blogs, this sort of thing - as long as it isn't too prevalent (ha! I was tempted to type "toooooo") - really doesn't belong. For me, a blog is like a diary. My diaries can contain whatever grammatical errors and eccentric spelling I want them to contain. After all, I write them for myself; I ignore the fact that I am so self-absorbed that I don't think it's strange that my diary is online for anyone to look at.

Still, this writing series is excellent. I can't help but think that my writing might improve and change whether I imagine that I'm disagreeing with some of your ideas or not. Many thanks.

Simi J said...

There is so much to learn. Thank you for this post, it really felt as thou you had written this for me.


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