There are nearly 8 billion people inhabiting the earth. Most are capable of stringing together a sequence of words in order to communicate an idea or feeling. Occasionally, this even includes lawyers.
At this very moment, if you were to log on to any social network, you’d find thousands of people writing about any number of topics, including vacations, sex, parenting, mental illness…
Hmmm. Looking back over that last sequence, I definitely see a pattern forming.
My point is, with all of these people writing, what determines the difference between someone who writes and a writer?
There really is a difference and, as with any art form, deciding between “good” and “poor” writing comes down to personal taste and interpretation. Or possibly an interpreter if you’re reading Ozzy Osbourne biography. Regardless, there is one thing that truly defines a writer:
Ok, and maybe Spellcheck.
But mostly it’s their voice.
Before we get into the art of recognizing and establishing a writer’s voice, I need to post the following Disclaimer:
I do not pretend to know anything about art.
That said, I have great respect for any artist whose work can provoke me into seeing or understanding something in a different way. For example, I once saw an art piece called “Eternal Hunger,” which, cleverly, was an empty room with a single pea glued to the center of the floor. I remember standing there in the doorway and quietly reflecting to myself:
I’ll probably never like peas.
As absurd as that exhibit may sound, I remember it because the artist’s presentation — his voice — was confident and unique.
Did it change how I feel about peas?
Am I still trying to swallow a pea my mom made me eat in 1972?
At this very moment.
But writers are just like painters or sculptors; they have at their disposal tools to help them create and communicate in ways which — depending on how they use their tools and in what sequence — will resonate their own unique voice.
Here are three of the most important tools in establishing a writer’s voice:
Before we get started, I must post a Second Disclaimer: If you are William Hung, there is nothing I can offer that will improve your voice in any shape or form, including written.
Let us begin with Timing.
In my mind, this is probably the most important and frequently wielded tool for a writer, and the most complex. That’s because so many devices play a role in timing, including punctuation, paragraph structure, word usage and even font choice.
As a humor columnist, I often want to take the reader by surprise so that they don’t see the punch line coming, much like a bullfighter who uses his cape to entrance the bull while, simultaneously, hiding the stain in the seat of his tight pants.
Other times, punctuation can offer the pause, beat or — as with the long dash — a visual distraction to hide the fact I’ve forgotten my point.
Oh yes… Timing. It can also be used to underscore a dramatic moment, or build tension and anticipation toward a climactic revelation your reader can’t get to fast enough, such as our next topic:
More than any time in history, readers are astute at recognizing a false tone in writing. Reality TV shows, blogs and instant access to information have, to a certain degree, trained readers to be skeptics, making your job of building a connection with the reader particularly crucial. This is especially true for columnists and short fiction writers who, regardless of their height, must build that connection within the first few paragraphs.
Being truthful is one of the fastest ways to build that connection.
This has less to do revealing things about yourself, and more to do with being honest. That said, if you’re writing about how you hate making sandwiches, then Yes — go ahead and reveal that you secretly lick all the peanut butter off the knife between spreads.
Not that I would ever do that.
I’m just saying…
Writing with an element of truth about yourself, or your character, builds trust with the reader and can make an immediate connection, especially if they recognize something in themselves.
Being truthful also means doing your homework by educating yourself before you write about it. For example, my column this week is about the first marriage proposal in space. Before writing about that subject, or making any predictions about the first wedding in space or cosmic marriage counselor, I took the time to become an astronaut at NASA.
Ok, but I did do my research and discovered that I would not attend any wedding in space because the food would be really terrible. Plus, throwing rice or birdseed, while a popular tradition, would mean spending the entire day surrounded by clouds of rice and seeds floating in zero gravity.
Write about what you know. Start with yourself and educate yourself about the rest so that readers will trust you.
The third tool is really an extension of Trust, and that’s Relativity. Even if you are already knowledgeable or experienced on a subject, you will lose your reader if they can’t relate. This includes writing about personal experience; if the reader doesn’t feel included, it won’t matter how wacky “Aunt Frita” is if your reader doesn’t know “Aunt Frita” is actually a mule.
I realize that’s a bit of an overstatement, especially since I don’t know “Aunt Frita” either, but without carefully laying the foundation in a way that includes your reader, they will likely sit down and refuse to follow.
To be honest, each one of these subjects could have their own column. However, I hope I’ve at least given you enough to start with so that you’ll recognize these tools as you read others’ writing.
As always, feel free to contact me with questions by email, posting your question here, or by participating in my discussion forum.
Unless you are William Hung.
(Next week: Like bowel movements, a writing routine is crucial)
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