For those of you just joining our program, please read the previous post at this blog, then hop on over to read Pot’s response.
Done? Okay. I feel like I should clarify, as Pot has touched upon a more philosophical and long term aspect of the notion of writing like you talk. She talks about the fantastic journey of finding one’s voice as a writer. This is, typically, a long term process of evolution over your lifetime as a writer. When I say write like you talk, I really don’t mean it as relates to your writer’s voice. I’m merely trying to make it easier for you to write understandable, free-flowing prose–something that would trip off your tongue easily rather than coming off stilted and awkward. I don’t mean you literally have to put the words on paper exactly as you speak because that’s not only limiting, it’s nonsensical. Everyone has multiple voices. I work in academia. I have a very different way of speaking to research colleagues than I do to my friends or to a child or to my parents. I can just as easily adopt a characters’ voice, whether that character be a historical Highlander or an elderly black woman from the Deep South. Those are just as much writing like you talk as your specific voice.
I suppose what I’m really getting at is that writing as you speak is often (not always, lord knows) an easier way of writing clearly than pulling out Strunk and White and looking at all the bits and pieces and how they allegedly, mechanically fit together. Now for some folks, who perhaps grew up somewhere where standard English was not the norm, this may be more difficult to apply. It can be applied successfully–look at Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. That entire novel is written in dialect just about. And it’s masterfully done (a bit difficult to read, but still wonderful).
Perhaps better advice would be to read. There is a huge disconnect in schools where they separate grammar and reading into separate subjects, and I think it’s a mistake. People don’t seem to like to read much anymore, so they aren’t getting the constant exposure to the written word and learning grammar that way. I didn’t learn it the traditional way (for example, I don’t have the foggiest idea what a gerund is). But if you want to write read like crazy. Everything you can get your hands on. Read for voice, read for sentence construction and vocabulary. Pay attention to how each author puts things together. And your own voice will begin to morph and change and develop because of it.
It’s a good clarification, and I think you can never go wrong with the advice: “read like crazy”.
A lot of the time, I think we don’t realize how the things we say and the advice we give, both asked for and not, affect others, especially those who are younger and/or less experienced than we are.
So while you might think that your advice implies a series of disclaimers that don’t even need to be spoken because to perceive otherwise would be nonsensical, you never know when someone is going to take your advice to heart in a more literal way than it was intended.
It’s sort of like the advice “Write what you know”. I now have my own understanding of what that means, and it’s very different from what I understood it to mean in my youth. And recently, I talked to young writers who also had misconceptions about this piece of advice, because someone or multiple someone’s threw out that cliche and didn’t talk about what it really meant. They took it literally and felt confined to writing only about their own actual experience. And while it might seem obvious to others that Tolkien was actually not a hobbit and probably did not have interactions with actual people of the elven persuasion, mentioning that to these people was like a light-bulb moment for them.
So possibly, the subject of my post should have been, be very clear with your advice to those who might be impressionable and inexperienced.
For some stories, I write in a specific voice – more formal or less formal. Generally, it depends on the genre or the character’s voices (which I pull from how I interpret other people’s conversations).
I think you should pull from reality as much as possible – it helps with the natural flow of the prose and helps it not sound so stuffy.
Either way, it’s an interesting debate, but not bad advice at all for a someone trying out writing for the first time. Hmm…thanks for the interesting post!
I think ‘write like you talk’ is primarily advice for a particular situation. That situation is the beginning writer whose prose seems stilted and artificial by the fact that they view written English as something different and more formal than the spoken language. Another way to put it is the annoying buzzword “keep it real!” Language shouldn’t be lifeless and drab just because it’s written rather than spoken.