Tips for Writers: #2 Writing the Way You Speak

A common mistake many writers make is writing the way they speak. Americans are known for having poorer language skills than speakers of other languages. An American’s vocabulary also pales in comparison to that of native speakers of other languages, including other speakers of English. Americans seem not to hide behind language; their tone is very natural and even some would say uncultured. This topic is certainly suitable for a post unto itself, but the reason why I bring it up here is because American writers usually write the way they speak.

To clarify: Having a natural tone in your writing is of the utmost importance, but what needs to be addressed is when that tone is suitable. Language-acquisition skills and how one speaks is a product of the level of education one receives as well as of the environment one is raised in. Depending upon the genre in which you are writing, your voice needs to match the general tone that other writers use in that genre. If you are writing an autobiography or a memoir then it is obvious and best that you should write in your natural, usual tone of voice. This creates an honest narrative that your readers can trust, knowing that what you are saying is true because your voice sounds the way you normally speak in conversation. A conversational tone is an asset when writing autobiography or memoir.

In fiction, whether short stories or novels, the first-person narrator should speak in a voice other than yours, allowing him or her to have his or her own voice, creating a personality that can or cannot be trusted, liked or disliked. When the narrator is third person, the voice needs to be clear and objective, narrating the events of the tale as they occur, creating an atmosphere in which the characters speak and act alone and with each other without being judged by anyone but the reader. So, when it comes to fiction your personal voice, who you are in your everyday life, the person everyone sees and knows through direct contact with your personal character, should not be present. The beauty of fiction is making yourself disappear as a subject and as an object. The power of fiction is in the storytelling and not letting your personal self get in the way of the unfolding narrative.

When it comes to poetry things work slightly differently. As in all art, the goal in literature is to create a work that will be objectively clear and reveal the reader to themselves rather than reveal the author. But poetry is a genre that crosses that line and blurs it: poets have written about subjects that do not include themselves, erasing their personal voice for the sake of telling a story in rhyme and poetic language. But poets more and more present themselves as the subject and object of their verse, the speaker’s voice usually being their very own. This gives poetry the power of conveying the truthful experiences of the self without any mediating forces, akin to memoir or autobiography, just not necessarily directly speaking to the factual events in the poet’s life, but rather expressing an interpretation of those events or other ordinary moments.

As for nonfiction, including biography, again the writer’s voice must be clear and objective, relating events as they have been recorded to have happened and offering a neutral perspective on those events or the lives of those being written about. The writer should certainly have an interest in the subject they are writing about, but their personal voice and perspective should be removed from the narrative so as to present the subject in its natural light, again, letting the reader come to their own conclusions. In scholarly texts this also holds true, as the purpose of an academic work is to discourse on a thesis whose validity the author wishes to prove, and this can only be done through an honest investigation and analysis of the facts and events as they are known. The writer’s personal thoughts and opinions should not intrude unless the facts, along with a reasonable interpretation of them, clearly justify that authorial intervention.

Writing and speaking are two entirely different things, and each has its place and purpose, in everyday life and in the creation of literature and the other arts. When you speak, your voice indicates a tone; it expresses how your feel and what you’re thinking, thus it reveals the subjective nature of human personality and character. When you write, it is important that you know when and where to utilize your personal voice and when to write with an unbiased, neutral voice whose purpose is to transmit information to readers for their edification and/or entertainment. Writing is hard, and often the hardest thing about writing is finding your voice and getting it just right so as to present a naturally flowing narrative.

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