I’ve had several questions recently on finding one’s voice… so I turned to good buddy Les Edgerton, author of the brilliant ebook Finding Your Voice…
I’ll wager that most of you reading this do something else to earn your daily bread. Which means that for most of your waking hours, you’re among non-writers. That’s probably true even if you’re self-employed or stay at home with those small citizens roaming around the living room who bear your last name and a smaller version of your nose. If your main source of social contact happens to be your significant other, he or she probably isn’t a writer either.
Further, most of the people you work in the office or on the assembly line with—or break bread at noon with—or meet in the coffee shop after work with—more than likely aren’t writers—chances are they probably aren’t readers either. Oh, sure, casual readers, but not readers to the depth you’re a reader.
What does this mean to you as a writer?
Only this—it’s easy to begin to think of your own potential readership as being comprised of the same kinds of folks you see at work or at play or bearing a strong resemblance to the family next door. Non-writers and nonreaders or casual readers, mostly. Unless you lease a rent-controlled co-op in the Simon & Schuster building.
And why wouldn’t you see your audience that way? After a while, it’s only natural to imagine most people in the country itself are pretty much like the folks you see every day.
Well, most folks are . . . but those aren’t your readers, usually.
Your reader is yourself.
Write This Down!
I’ll repeat: Your reader is yourself.
Or someone much like yourself.
Someone who shares your interests, knows just about the same things as you do, has close to the same intelligence, has a reading background and history similar to what you’ve had.
You may never meet him or her.
What I’m getting at is that your reader—at least, the sort of reader you should be writing for—isn’t personally known to you and I doubt if you have much, if any personal contact with him or her, nor are you likely to except on a book signing tour.
How does this affect your writing style?
By getting out of your own natural voice to please someone else.
Make yourself your intended reader. By writing to you as your reader, you get closer than at any other time to getting your real voice on the page. You write naturally.
You don’t, for instance, include subtle “explanations” in your prose when you write to yourself.
What is somewhat derogatorily referred to by some as “dumbing down the prose.” This is when you attempt to make what you’re writing crystal-clear for a readership you may assume needs that info… because they’re not you. We likely do this kind of thing because we make the people we see every day our assumed audience.
Which means we begin to “write down” for that imagined audience. Mostly by providing “explanations” in a variety of ways to help out the imagined reader. A noble sentiment, but one that’s detrimental to both your voice and to the overall quality of your work.
This gets us out of our voice because now we’re trying to “explain” things to the reader, making it easier to slip back into the beige voice. Think about it. In “real life,” if you feel you have to begin explaining something in the middle of a story—a term, some background you think necessary for the listener to understand the story—you slip out of that “natural” story-telling mode and tend to revert to a more formal diction. We might call it our “dictionary voice.” Once you begin to think you have to explain something in your prose, the same thing happens.
It’s just a mistake to do so in writing.
Think about it. How many times have you “simpled down” the story or article you’re writing, chiefly because your experience “tells” you that you’ll have to in order for others to “get it?”
More than once, I bet. I’m guilty of doing so. Not so much anymore, but at one time . . .
If you have, then you haven’t been writing for your real reader. You’ve been writing for your acquaintances. Sorry, chum. That’s what today’s teenager might call, “your bad.”
When you write for a reader like yourself—your twin—you begin writing for a reader who doesn’t have to have much explained to him. Doesn’t require backstory/setup or doesn’t need to be fed information via characters’ dialogue. After all, your reader knows the same things you do and you get to “talk” to him or her in the same kind of shorthand you do when you think to yourself or talk to an old, close friend or relative.
In your voice.
Let me give you an example of how writing for someone other than a reader like yourself can affect your writing style when you’re writing.
This is from Lucy Grealy’s sobering memoir, Autobiography of a Face, an account of her overcoming her facial disfigurement caused by childhood cancer. It starts out like this:
My friend Stephen and I used to do pony parties together. The festivities took place on the well-tended lawns of the vast suburban communities that had sprung up around Diamond D Stables in the rural acres of Rockland County. Mrs. Daniels, the owner of Diamond D, took advantage of the opportunity and readily dispatched a couple of ponies for birthday parties. In the early years Mrs. Daniels used to attend the parties with us, something Stephen and I dreaded. She fancied herself a sort of Mrs. Roy Rogers and dressed in embarrassing accordance: fringed shirts, oversized belt buckles, ramshackle hats.
Okay. Here’s the deal. Grealy wrote this for a reader she obviously imagined having much the same background and knowledge she possessed. How do I know that? That’s easy. From the sentence that begins: She fancied herself a sort of Mrs. Roy Rogers. She doesn’t explain who “Mrs. Roy Rogers” is, although I know for a fact there are quite a few people, under, say, the age of thirty-nine or so who don’t have a clue who she’s referring to.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the name, “Mrs. Roy Rogers,” she was the late Dale Evans, wife of the oater and TV star back in the forties and fifties. An American pop culture icon, in her day.
I knew who Mrs. Roy Rogers was—after all, I’ve been around since God was a little boy—but I’m pretty sure many of Grealy’s readers didn’t have the slightest intimation to whom she was referring.
Did she stop to provide an explanation?
No ma’am! No sir! She assumed a reader like herself. For those “in the know” the way Grealy presented her name—“Mrs. Roy Rogers” instead of “Dale Evans”—was humorous. There’s a lot going on here. Referring to her as “Mrs. Roy Rogers” instead of Dale Evans requires the reader to really be aware of who she was, as well as make a subtle statement about American society at the time. Women then were largely considered second bananas to their husbands and she’s making a clever statement here. Also, by using Dale Evans as Mrs. Daniels’ role model, she’s showing the reader what era the scene took place in. A lesser writer would have furnished the year or decade, but Grealy is a superb writer who knows that the best writing leaves some work for the reader to do. She gives the “clue” to all this—status of women, the year of the scene— via the reference and this is what good writing is all about. Allowing the reader the delight of figuring stuff out for herself.
If Grealy had been trying to overexplain for a reader, she might have written a different sentence. Something like, She fancied herself a sort of Dale Evans—the one-time famous wife of Roy Rogers, the famous “Singing Cowboy” movie and TV star of the ’50′s—and dressed in embarrassing accordance with that former pop icon: fringed shirts, oversized belt buckles, ramshackle hats.
But Grealy wrote the book for a person like herself, a reader who knows as well as she does who Mrs. Roy Rogers was and also her image in our culture at one time.
It’s just plain exciting to come upon a book and an author like this. One who doesn’t overexplain to her reader and who remains fully within her own voice by refusing to do so.
All you have to do is follow Grealy’s example and the readers of your work will react the same way upon encountering your writing. Just assume they’ll get it.
Will some of the readers of Grealy’s memoir be lost when they encounter the reference to Mrs. Roy Rogers? Be totally clueless as to who she’s talking about?
Without a doubt.
Should she care?
Because … a writer can’t be everything to everyone. However . . . I’ll bet they become her readers. As will those who read your prose become yours, even if they don’t understand all the references. Why? Because you’ve given them the ultimate compliment a writer can give to a reader.
You’ve told them you think they’re pretty smart.
Know anyone who can resist that?
Les Edgerton, author of Finding Your Voice
Note: Finding Your Voice is available at Amazon, B&N.com, and the iBookstore