This is the second of a five-part series of blogs in which I explain the top 5 writing mistakes people make and how to eliminate them. For mistake 2, I want to free you and your voice.
Mistake 2: You think you have to pretend you’re someone you’re not.
In general, we all want to sound educated, especially in writing. Unfortunately, many people don’t feel like they’re free to use their own voice. So they end up writing stiff sentences with unnecessarily formal words, pretending they’re someone they’re not.
Here’s my theory
People lose their own voice because at key moments when they were learning to write, some well-meaning teacher or parent told them their writing wasn’t clear (“awkward”), wasn’t good enough (“use bigger words”), or didn’t follow the rules (“Never start a sentence with ‘and,’ ‘so,’ or ‘but’”). Imperfect, vague, and incomplete feedback like this has caused many people to decide they can’t trust how they write or write as they normally speak.
As an English professor for 20 years faced with a never-ending mound of papers to grade, I never felt I could give as much substantive, ongoing, and individualized writing instruction to fully support my students on their journey toward learning how to write well, think well, AND use their own voice.
Be Willing to Fail to Succeed as a Writer
Learning how to express ideas in writing using your own voice takes practice over time and involves repeated failures—just like learning how to shoot a free throw in basketball or serve aces in tennis. Writers learning to trust their own voice will make mistakes and sometimes feel like failures. On top of that, someone will inevitably be critical or “correct” their writing, which can feel very personal—like an attack on an individual’s creative expression.
Add a whole army of grammar Nazis telling people what they can and cannot do, and you get a lot of befuddled writers abandoning their own voice and using passive or weirdly constructed sentences that turn into convoluted, crazy-quilt paragraphs.
Self-conscious writers also tend to experiment with high falutin’ synonyms that they can now find too easily just by right clicking on a word. For example, someone just sent me an email message saying he looks forward to “conversing” with me, rather than just “talking.” Last night, I was editing a medical student’s personal statement, and she used the word “demise” when a simple “death” would do. Stop!
How to be yourself in writing
Trust the sound of the voice inside your head
For your first draft, conjure up the image of a person (or persons) you’re actually writing for and give yourself permission to write just like you’d talk to them. Slow down and pay attention to when and how you shift, or think you must shift, into some inauthentic voice. Then catch yourself. Listen for how YOU sound and then write that way, even though you’ll need to make adjustments later because written communication is different from oral communication. Now, read your draft out loud. Does it sound like you?
Also, keep in mind that your tone, word choice, and sentence structure should vary according to your intended audience and purpose for writing. I can write all sorts of things to my close friends (and in all sorts of ways) that I couldn’t or wouldn’t write in business settings. I can still sound like myself, though, as I vary my tone and style depending on my writing context.
Try getting it out fast and furiously without censoring or overthinking
If you feel like you’ve lost your voice, try this experiment: yell your way through a page or two about some topic you’re passionate about. Be as sarcastic as you possibly can be. You won’t want to leave your writing at a high-pitched scream, but after saying what you need to say without holding back, you’re more likely to find your own voice. Then you can tone it down.
You’re a financial advisor, for instance, and clients start calling you to take their retirement savings out of a falling market. You know that’s a bad idea, but just as a writing exercise to find your voice, try typing exactly what you’ve always wanted to say to needlessly panicked people who force you to keep explaining why they shouldn’t move their money—at least not yet! Of course, you won’t really write to your clients with this much cynicism, but you may actually find your voice practicing this technique.
Only use words you know
Using words you don’t know makes you sound silly, especially to people who DO know the definition (denotation) and emotional nuances (connotation) of the word you just misused. I’m not saying don’t expand your vocabulary. By all means! Read more! Study the meaning of words. It’s easy to do now online. But if a word isn’t part of your working vocabulary, and if you don’t know if that “big” word you’re trying to use works, then don’t use it! Use the “simple” word you do know instead.
And please, if everyone would cease using weird, antiquated Latin words like “per,” as in “as per your usual,” I’d be a lot happier. Thank you.