DON’T Write Like You Talk: Lesson #2 from Student Writing

This is post #2 in a series expanding the six writing & editing lessons that authors can take away from my writing students.

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“This doesn’t contradict the first point as much as it appears to. While you should keep your writing natural and in your voice, you should also make sure that it stays clear and grammatically correct. I had some students who had no trouble writing in their own creative, engaging voices. However, they went a little too far and started to write what was practically stream-of-consciousness on some of their assignments. Not only was it too casual for academic work, it also ignored all conventions of keeping paragraphs on topic and avoiding run-on sentences. I’ve seen authors slip into something similar, so be careful! When you write, it’s good to use your own voice. Just make sure that you’re using your writing voice, not your speaking voice.” –Original post

Student problem #1: Run-on sentences and paragraphs

When my students had something to say on a topic they loved, they were eager to tell me all about it. The problem is, they were writing information down as if they were sharing it verbally—throwing it onto the page without clear ideas of where their sentences started and ended. The paragraphs also lacked clear structure in these cases—some lasted only a sentence or two, while others filled an entire page. While it’s good for students’ and authors’ writing to sound natural, it should also demonstrate more intentional time and thought than are found in the instantaneous flow of words from brain to mouth. Organization, whether that of an essay or a novel, should be clear and readable.

Student problem #2: Casual phrasing

Some students had the opposite problem of those who took on an overly academic tone. In these teens’ efforts to write naturally, they wrote with all of the phrases and language that they would use if talking to a friend. There’s such a thing as being too casual—I don’t want to see a paper full of “so” and “you know” and “for sure.” It’s important for writers to remember who their audience is—this kind of language might be appropriate for an email to a friend or a contemporary YA novel, but it’s probably a good idea to use a different tone for a high fantasy novel or academic work.

Author problem #1: Fragments and misplaced modifiers

When authors quickly throw their words onto the page as they think of them, certain sloppy patterns show up. A big one is weakness in sentence structure. The manuscripts are often full of fragments, or the modifying phrases and clauses aren’t clearly linked to their antecedents. Some fragments can be used for stylistic reasons, but use them sparingly and intentionally. As for misplaced modifiers, be careful not to write sentences like “The bus pulled up to the curb full of passengers”—it’s hard to tell whether the bus or the curb is full. Be careful, too, not to write sentences like “Taking a bite of food, the steak felt tough and dry between my teeth.” That sentence literally means that the steak is taking a bite—opening modifiers refer to the subject of the sentence, which in this case is the steak, not the narrator.

Author problem #2: Idioms that don’t fit characters

The way people around you talk isn’t necessarily the way your characters should talk. If you’re writing a story with characters from a different background, age, or lifestyle than yours, they probably won’t be thinking and speaking with the same language uses as you. Be aware of the expressions and idioms you use—where do they come from? Would your characters have the cultural background necessary to understand what they mean and to use them? Watch out for this in first person narratives and certain limited third person stories, too—your POV character won’t narrate or reflect using idioms and phrases that don’t fit them as a character, even outside of dialogue.

Fix #1: Make good grammar part of your thinking.

Since the biggest weaknesses of writing like you talk come from casual or sloppy sentence construction, the strongest way to cut out those problems is to make clarity a natural part of your own expression. Take time to learn more about grammar than mere lists of punctuation rules or parts of speech. Love the language! Learn how sentences are put together and why, and you’ll find that your written expression will be organized more logically. This is a worthwhile life skill for writers of any age, not just students. I’m happy to recommend some books if you don’t know where to start.

Fix #2: Write like you’d talk to your target audience.

My students slipped into casual language when they failed to consider who their work’s audience was. Authors often do the same on their early drafts, when they’re still writing for themselves. It’s fine to use whatever tone you need to get that first draft out as long as you revise voice later, but why not keep your target audience in mind from the very beginning? Who is your reader? How old are they, and what tone are they used to reading? The more you write to them in the beginning, the better your style will match what they want from you.

Fix #3: Write like your POV character, not like yourself.

Is writing like you talk detracting from the strength of your novel’s voice? Consider immersing yourself in your point of view character’s voice before writing a scene. If you’re writing in third person limited or first person, this is an especially good idea—the scene is from their head, not yours, so you need to observe what they’re observing and react to it the way they would react to it—not the way you would. It takes practice to get character voice down well, but letting the characters tell the story their way can often make for a much more engaging voice than you would have had with your own mannerisms.

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