In response to If English Isn’t Your First Language – An Open Letter To Writers, Cathy Miller commented in part, “I have worked with several individuals (who) spoke perfect English. However, when it came to writing in English, you’d never know it was the same person. I don’t know why, but it was a very common occurrence.”
The phenomena of writing being different than speaking she describes reminded me of one of the lessons I learned along the way about freelance writing, and that was how to be myself.
Sounds silly doesn’t it? I mean, who else would I be? Who else would you be?
Here’s what I mean.
Years ago I started a newspaper column called Successful Single Parenting. I managed to syndicate it to three newspapers and actually got a book out of it by the same name that you can still find if you search for it.
I was also contacted by a major newspaper syndicator to create a series of three one-shot stories based on my column. The hope was the stories would be picked up by a whole bunch of newspapers around the country, leading to a good profit for the paper, for me and maybe even a regular column.
I froze. Almost completely. I struggled to get words on the screen of my first computer. I wrote, then rewrote, and rewrote some more, hating every word I put down.
Looking back, I know I was trying to write what I thought the editor wanted. I thought, somehow, that it had to be different, more sophisticated perhaps, or at least more formal than my usual writing.
Please, understand, the editor, who was a jewel, didn’t ask me to write differently. That was something I made up all on my own. I was dazzled by the possibilities and convinced that what I’d done so far wasn’t nearly good enough. I really wish I’d kept those stories, or maybe I’m glad I didn’t. I finally got them written and submitted and waited.
The editor called me -yes, sometimes an editor will do that. I don’t remember all he said, but one part still rings in my brain. “Anne, I want your concrete charm!.”
Concrete charm? I had no idea what he was talking about and way too much in awe to ask him. I simply agreed to rewrite the articles. As I remember it I paced for about three days trying to figure out what about me and my writing was concretely charming. I re-read some of my columns, more than once. And finally I began to understand what he wanted.
He wanted me to write the one-shots the way I’d written the columns. It seems so obvious now, but I remember how startled I was. The idea that something about my writing voice caught his attention – more than that, it not only caught his attention but he liked it, was a brand new thought to me.
I began to relax. After all I did know how to do that. I wrote the one shots the way I wrote those weekly columns.
Relax and Write
The editor loved them and I learned a huge lesson – to relax and be myself when I write.
Oh sure, sometimes I need to be more formal than others. When I’m ghostwriting books I listen so I can write in the client’s voice. There are solid reasons to write one way or another, but unless I’m ghosting it’s always me. And my writing has gotten better over time – it really is hard to get worse at something we practice, and I write a lot.
Mostly I just relax and write – not exactly the way I speak, but close. I strongly suggest you quit worrying and do the same thing. I suspect you’ll be delighted with the results.
How do you approach your writing in terms of voice or style?