By Chris Peters
Many authors set out to write in a conversational tone. This may sound easy enough, especially for those with excellent public speaking and presentation skills. But effective communication is not merely about the words, and good writing is not merely transcribing thoughts to page. For this reason, finding your “writing voice” can be challenging.
When we speak, we modulate volume, timing, and tone. We use hand gestures. We make eye contact. We pause for effect and rush through the action. But on the page (or computer screen) the rules are different. Authors instead employ punctuation, structure, and other tools and tricks to guide the reader and control the flow and consumption of information.
Speech is peppered with phrases like “Truth is” or “Let me tell you,” or even smaller introductory interjections like “So” or “Well.” The problem arises when we misconstrue these utterances as our “voice.”
When we write, we often want to write in our own voice. This should not be confused with writing as we would speak to another person in the world. Your true voice is formed by your ideas, not your words. When speaking, interjections like those above serve as tiny little clichés that grease the wheels, so to speak, to get everyone rolling in the right direction. They keep language flowing. (Clichés often get a bad rap. They are but one of the tools at an author’s disposal, providing quick, relatable, commonly understood shortcuts and metaphors intended to help a reader grasp a difficult topic or simply set the tone. But they come with baggage and can quickly weigh you down. As with all things, moderation is key.)
These turns of phrase are still important, as is repetition, but they must be employed thoughtfully to have the most impact. Otherwise they will be stumbling blocks, breaking the spell ever so slightly. A single phrase appearing just a few times in a single chapter is noticeable because the reader is so close to the words. Everything stands out so much more. A speech or presentation is an entire sensory experience; a book is focused intensely on the language.
Writing in your “speaking voice” also tends to introduce a needless amount of words for readers to wade through. Reducing the phrase “It is important to remember to always XYZ …” to “Remember to always XYZ…” or even simply “Remember…” emphasizes the information as a call to action. It’s concise, authoritative, and punchy. This same principle holds true for passive language. By using positive, affirmative sentences, we can imbue a work with energy and employ an economy of words without impacting tone or voice.
Finding the perfect word for the situation does much more than save ink. It reduces ambiguity. It leaves less room for readers to misunderstand or get confused. It conveys authority and command over the idea at hand. At best, it’s akin to telepathy. And when transmitting ideas from one mind to another through the written word, always take the shortest path lest your readers get lost.
As you develop your writing voice, it’s helpful to know that it shouldn’t sound just like your speaking voice—even if you aspire to have a conversational tone. Adapting to your medium is a key aspect of quality communication.