Single Quickest Way To Improve Your Writing, If You Can Find It

I won’t cover-up the lede with prologue: the quickest way to improve your writing is by finding your own voice.

Ah. Notice how I didn’t tell you it was the easiest thing to do? And I didn’t mention exactly what that meant — even though most of us have heard the advice, we probably haven’t understood it. With the help of my favorite book on writing, below I’ll give you three ways to find your own writing voice.

In a clever piece about losing his once forceful voice to a battle with esophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens describes the advice an editor gave him about a well argued, but boring piece: write “more like the way that you talk.” Hitchens can talk. He’s a throwback to a time when intellectuals had public debates about the issues of the times. Not only were there smart people having a public dialog, but they could talk, like, in coherent, logically structured sentences. Hitchens:

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions.

Since most of us don’t speak very well, it’s a tough leap to grasp onto what finding our own writing voice means, but I’ll make an attempt, with the help of John R. Trimble. He’s the author of one of the most useful, slim, books about writing: Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. Trimble doesn’t make this argument, but based on his words, here are 3 ways to find your own writing voice:

  1. Write to server people, not impress them. We don’t often speak in a style to impress people, so don’t do it when you write.
  2. Be lucid. When we’re talking the object isn’t to obscure our true meaning (unless you’re Donald Rumsfeld), it’s to communicate our thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Work to be lucid.
  3. “Have something to say that’s worth their attention.” If part of finding our own writing voice is being more like we (ideally) speak, then we should write something that’s worth people’s attention.

What makes your writing sound more like you?

Photo by chuckthewriter and republished here under a Creative Commons license.