Posts Tagged ‘voice’

Who cares about saying what you mean as briefly as possible? You do, if you care whether anybody hears you in today’s crazy arcade of voice mails, emails, tweets, text messages, status updates, comments, and forums. Your audience is at least as busy as you. The longer your point takes, the more interruptions hit them.  The more you say, the less they hear.

If you bore us, this is the only way you’ll hold us. (Photo by Sidious Sid)

We once thought the Internet’s limitless space allowed us to write disregarding length. Oops. Today, when even “Too Long; Didn’t Read” has an acronym (TL;DR), concision means more than ever. Pithy is the new deep. Have a hard time fitting your message into 140 characters? Wait until you label the buttons and menus on your web site.

Brevity packs a punch. Per Strunk & White, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words… for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

I’ve taken this message to numerous audiences. Usually, it befuddles workers, who apparently believe adding extra words makes their emails importantier. But sometimes they merely need examples illustrating the point. That’s why I compiled this chart from real-life contributions to a corporate newsletter. It helped my colleagues stop padding their prose with turgid, useless bureaucratese.



 on a weekly basis  weekly
 has completed the development of  has developed
 Interim Report document  Interim Report
 over the course of the coming year  over the coming year
at present

at this time

at this present time

at this point in time

as of now

at this current juncture

for the time being

in this day and age

 at a later date  later
 for the purpose of  for
 as a result of  because
 is working to implement  is implementing
 in the event that  if
 which are of interest to the group  which interest the group
 provided a briefing  briefed
 produced a draft  drafted
 taken into consideration  considered
 was a participant  participated
 ensure the synchronization  synchronize
 includes a proposal  proposes
 issued a statement  stated

Let the Verb Be the Verb

The table above contains one blank line. The examples under it illustrate a problem I’ll call “nouning a verb.” You weaken your prose when you turn the verb into a noun, then add a “helper” verb to replace the real verb. Why say the chairperson “provided a briefing” to the Board? She briefed the Board. The opponents didn’t “outline a proposal,” they proposed. Let the verb be the verb. When you select the right verb, your prose has a stripped-down, muscular quality that busy readers appreciate.

Similarly, question all unnecessary “helper” words. Does it make a useful difference in the reader’s mind if the meeting began “a bit late” instead of “late”? No. If the session was “rather noisy,” just let it be “noisy.”

Nouns First

When you see the word “by,” that’s an indicator that — doh, I’m nouning a verb — that indicates you’ve taken the long path to your point. “By” is fine when you mean “near” (“the office by the mall”). Otherwise, a “by” cameo shows you can save words. Long way around: “This book is loved by parents.” Stronger: “Parents love this book.” Long and weak: “the report that was written by the committee.” Stronger: “the committee’s report.”

Writing short, clear, direct sentences? You rebel!You see this brawny, direct style every day in news articles. I once tried to explain the difference between active voice and passive voice to a social media coordinator who could not fit her sentences into tweets. I plucked a random news magazine off a nearby table and opened blindly to an article. It began, “Rebels took control…” Not “Control was taken by rebels…” Anyone can do this: Put the subject first, verb second, direct object last. Or, in lay terms: [Someone] [did something] [to something else]. This format yields clear sentences with solid impact.

If that clarity and brevity makes you feel squeamish, be a rebel. Rebels take control. Omit needless words.

My last entry spotlighted Christopher Moore’s humorous wordplay as an example of a stand-out voice. This entry spotlights an author whose voice stands out for other reasons entirely.

Years ago, a friend of mine visited the Holocaust Museum. The experience moved her deeply. She tried to capture her emotions in writing, but she just couldn’t do it. Finally she sent her essay to me in hopes I would tell her what to fix. Her piece listed what her class had done: they had touched artifacts used in the concentration camps, and they had stared at picture after picture of detainees. The piece finished, “It made us feel really sad.”

Of course the piece didn’t work. My friend had stumbled onto a foundational rule in writing fiction: you can’t generate an emotion in your reader simply by naming it.

Yet you must generate emotion. People read fiction in order to feel. So how do you make feelings contagious?

Helen Simonson’s jaw-droppingly good debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, shows how. In this opening scene, Major Pettigrew has forgotten to leave the newspaper boy’s money under the door mat, and is explaining why to a local shopkeeper at his door, a Pakistani woman he barely knows.

She was already turning away when he was seized with an urgent need to explain.

“My brother died,” he said. She turned back. “My brother died,” he repeated. “I got the call this morning. I didn’t have time.” The dawn chorus had still been chattering in the giant yew against the west wall of his cottage, the sky pink, when the phone rang. The Major, who had been up early to do his weekly housecleaning, now realized he had been sitting in a daze ever since. He gestured helplessly at his strange outfit and wiped a hand across his face. Quite suddenly his knees felt loose and he could sense the blood leaving his head. He felt his shoulders meet the doorpost unexpectedly and Mrs. Ali, quicker than his eye could follow, was somehow at his side propping him upright.

“I think we’d better get you indoors and sitting down,” she said, her voice soft with concern. “If you will allow me, I will fetch you some water.” Since most of the feeling seemed to have left his extremities, the Major had no choice but to comply. Mrs. Ali guided him across the narrow, uneven stone floor of the hallway and deposited him in the wing chair tucked just inside the door of the bright, book-lined living room. It was his least favorite chair, lumpy cushioned and with a hard ridge of wood at just the wrong place on the back of his head, but he was in no position to complain.

“I found the glass on the draining board,” said Mrs. Ali, presenting him with the thick tumbler in which he soaked his partial bridgework at night. The faint hint of spearmint made him gag. “Are you feeling any better?”

If you’ve read attentively, you realize viscerally that poor Major Pettigrew is in shock. Yet he never says so, and neither does Mrs. Ali, and neither does Helen Simonson. We learn it from his body.

Another example: which version makes you feel this character’s tension? First: “Waiting for his job interview, he felt nervous.” Second: “He rubbed his palms on his slacks, and they left moist spots. Looking at them, he felt his heart lurch faster. The room had no air.”

Don’t say, “She felt embarrassed.” Say, “Her face turned hot.” She feels it. Let us feel it. Then we take the hint, and we feel the emotion.

Express emotion by putting it in the character’s body. And I mean in the character’s body. In the example above, if you say “She blushed,” it doesn’t work as well as “Her face turned hot.” That’s because when we’re nervous, we don’t usually see ourselves redden. If we merely see her blush, that is a step less intimate, less visceral, than being inside her body and feeling the blush.

Simonson’s mastery of the Telling Detail staggers me. I love “he felt his shoulders meet the doorpost unexpectedly” because shock feels just like that: you don’t sense Up or Down or Sideways; gravity surprises you. The detail of the lumpy wing chair tells us something about Major Pettigrew: he will keep non-useful objects in his life for show, or because they seem proper. And finally, the bit about drinking from his dental glass just slays me. Who hasn’t told a neighbor “Make yourself at home,” only to watch them violate an unwritten household rule you didn’t realize you had? Simonson keeps the keenly observed details coming, page after page.

Okay. All gushing aside, I have two points in this entry. First, by comparing Christopher Moore and Helen Simonson, two very different writers, I hope I’ve illustrated that you can have a unique voice regardless of your preferred genre or style. Second, if you want to depict a character’s emotions so that your readers feel them, too, express them from inside the viewpoint character’s body. Tuck this technique into your bag of tricks, but somewhere convenient – you should reach for it often. If you don’t, it will make us really sad.

I don’t love many of the authors whose names persist on the fiction best-seller lists, because so many of them write in a generic voice. Most writers understand that a novel needs complex, realistic characters and a well-structured plot. Why do so many miss the concept of distinguishing themselves through voice?

Bite Me: A Love Story

Lately, Christopher Moore’s style has captured my attention. He writes urban fantasy (or sometimes horror, loosely defined) with a highly comedic touch. In his latest vampire novel, Bite Me: A Love Story, he describes a Goth emo teenager this way: “[Jared] was six foot two, very thin, and paler than Death shagging a snowman.”

For me, this really works. Maybe it helps if you live in Seattle, but I can certainly picture Jared’s pallor and his type.

In another passage from Bite Me, Moore shows a diary entry from a teen Goth girl who considers her name Allison a “day-slave name” and prefers to go by Abby Normal. Abby tries to squirm out of a confrontation with a cop by throwing him a crapload of snarkey attitude:

“Pervy and redundant, don’t you think?” I asked the big gay cop, who wouldn’t know a va-jay-jay if it bounced up to him and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” (You ever notice that hardly anything besides the “Star-Spangled Banner” is spangled? There’s no, like, the Raisin-Spangled Scone, or the Flea-Spangled Beagle. I’m just saying.)

I realize this wordplay doesn’t move the story ahead. You could call it gratuitous. But after reading seven novels in a row of stock prose (“The detective nodded and got in the car,” utterly lacking life or inventiveness) I admire this compulsive creativity. And we certainly get a feel for Abby Normal’s character via word choices such as “va-jay-jay” and (later in the passage) “tights put the PG-13 on my no-no place.”

In another passage, Moore refers to an old Chinese lady’s agitated rant as sounding like “a chicken being beat to death by a banjo.” (If you’re curious about Christopher Moore, some of his novels require you to read his previous novels. To dip into his oeuvre for a test drive, I recommend starting with A Dirty Job.)

I am not saying that every writer must use shock humor and crazy metaphors and similes. What I mean to convey is that all the infinite possibilities of expression and vocabulary are available to you. Why not use them as one more way to rock your reader’s world, and to stand out in your niche? Moore excels at humorous wordplay. What is your strength?

To misappropriate a metaphor from another unique stylist, David Foster Wallace: If you believe that communicating professionally requires you to write bland, careful prose, that’s a theory shakier than a canoe full of chihuahuas. As a reflection of the opinions and passions you strongly feel, passive sentences laboring under colorless verbs make your voice seem paler than Death shagging a snowman. Choose to let your unique creativity emerge in your style. Otherwise, your work comes off like “me too.” Be heard, or be herded.