No. 105: I write like I talk
Something that’s always fascinated me about Hemingway is the reason given for his sparse style and voice.
His earliest writings appeared in the columns of the Kansas City Star newspaper, where he landed a job as a journalist covering police and emergency room stories.
During his first week on the job, he was given a document called The Star Copy Style, which outlined style guidelines for new writers.
Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Be positive, not negative. Never use old slang. Slang, to be enjoyable, must be fresh. Watch your sequence of tenses. Eliminate every superfluous word.
Hemingway later said the rules were “the best [he] ever learned in the business of writing,” which his prose confirms. One of the characteristics that makes Hemingway Hemingway is a journalistic, reporter-style terseness versus the usual eloquence of literary writers.
Which raises the question.
What’s your go-to style and voice? What rules do you follow, if any, and where did they come from?
My voice is generally true-to-speech.
I try to write the way I talk or the way that people talk. I attempt a conversational tone that’s playful and light and easy to read. Without The Star to help, I found my style by experimenting and lots of reading, falling especially in love with the works of Hemingway and Salinger. This isn’t to say I didn’t admire other writers. Flaubert, the most flowery of stylists, is one of my absolute favorites. But with guys like Vonnegut I felt an almost genetic relationship.
It took a while to figure out my baseline style and voice. Most writers can summon a different voice at will, but figuring out the tone that’s truly your isn’t simple. After writing many words in strange and complex combinations, I found this — whatever this is is — to be my sweet spot, my happy place, the tone most true to me and that gives me the most freedom to stumble upon lyrical and conceptual surprises.
But then, while I claim a true-to-speech voice, the way I write is similar but not really the way I talk. Basically, I write the way I talk, but don’t talk the way I write — which is a brain breaker.
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I know the disparity exists because my fiancé sometimes demands, playfully, that I tell her how much I love her. My response usually falls short of her suddenly high poetic standards.
“I thought you were a writer,” she’ll jab.
“I am,” I’ll say, “which implies nothing about being a talker.”
At which point a pillow is liable to smack me in the face.
I guess she wants me to break into some Shakespearian soliloquy or something.
O, fair Grace
to love thee is to be free
as if walking under midnight’s dome
lit by a thousand stars
and knowing ahead
lies the endless pleasure
of going hand in hand
Apologies, Juliet. I’m a lame Romeo. That’s not going to happen.
But really, she’s expecting something at least as eloquent as the way I usually write, which highlights the difference between how I write and talk. Maybe that difference is the reason I love to write in the first place.
It’s as if the whole shenanigan of literature is a dialogue between two people — reader and writer — that’s designed to be carried out entirely within our heads, a space that gives a higher-order significance to everything passing through it.
By adopting a speech-like voice when I write, I’m able to elevate conversational, or “spoken,” language with the benefit of forethought. My writing may sound something like talking, but it’s not. It’s very calculated and linear and deliberate. I’m able to stop mid-sentence and think about how I want to end without my listener wondering if this is what a cerebral episode looks like. In that way, writing is a lot like stopping the space-time continuum mid conversation. I can conveniently arrange my thoughts, then resume.
This is probably why I’ve yet to indulge in audiobooks.
To me, it’s impossible to replicate the experience of reading great writing when the words fly by in a sonic wave — never seen, only heard.
This doesn’t mean I’ll never try an audiobook — the fact that I’ve never tried one is reason to doubt whatever I’m about to say — but in the same way that writing for me is something more than speaking, reading is something more than listening. It’s as if the whole shenanigan of literature is a dialogue between two people — reader and writer — that’s designed to be carried out entirely within our heads, a space that gives a higher-order significance to everything passing through it. Whenever I’ve listened to writing read aloud, I get the sense that I’m hearing and understanding, but not entirely feeling.
If I read this piece aloud, would read as fluently as when read traditionally? More importantly, would you, the reader, react to it in the same way, or even grasp all that’s being said without being able to lay your eyes on each word? Probably my true-to-speech voice would make a verbal reading smoother. But still, the spoken reading would call for edits, I think. Some editors even suggest reading your piece aloud while editing, which I pretty much never do, though maybe I should. Unless my reader is going to read the piece aloud, why? Perhaps the fundamental question is, does the voice in our heads work differently than our real, audible voices?
In an interview at the end of one of George Saunders’ books, he chats with David Sedaris, a writer know for reading his essays aloud in theaters around the country and world. Since today nearly all popular books are converted to audiobooks, and because, on tour, the author is often expected to read their work at promotional events, Saunders said he has begun to write “more for the ear” than he used to. After doing many readings, he said he’d gained better sense of his audience — for example, where in a story people laugh, where they sigh — and that he edits with this in mind, the same way a stand-up comedian might.
That there are laughs and sighs means that writing, when read aloud, is still being felt and experienced in a not insignificant way. Maybe the conclusion here, like most of my very gray conclusions, is not that one is better or worse, just different. After all, Sedaris’s pieces are presumably written with future, spoken readings in mind, and having only read them on the page, I love them as much as any great work of writing. Still, I’ve yet to hear Sedaris do a reading, an experience people pay a lot of money for. When I do, perhaps the the pieces I know well will seem new.
Still, I have questions.
Is every modern writer hoping to attain success expected to be a verbal performer? Do changes made to a work for spoken readings affect how it reads traditionally? Is some prose better suited to being read aloud, and does that give it a competitive advantage?
I’m really not sure. But these are interesting to consider.
I’d guess that, yes — to market their writing, the author should be willing to read. I’d also guess that edits for reading aloud do affect a work, but it’s unclear whether it’s for better or worse — I imagine meandering thoughts and tangents are frowned upon in the reading-aloud context. And with that said, some prose is probably more suited for speech. Flaubert, though beautiful and poetic, would be a long and drawn out read compared to the sharper, punchier Saunders.
In any case, what’s important is the same as it ever was: to write in a true and authentic voice and to find subjects that are fascinating to readers. With that, perhaps it’s merely a matter of presentation, similar to watching a movie in widescreen or standard, 3-D or not.
These, clearly, are the musings of a person who thinks far too much about the craft of writing (for example, I also believe that writing on a keyboard versus pen-and-paper fundamentally changes my writing) and not to be taken too seriously.
But I can’t deny the fact that, for me, all the best writing rings truest on the page. It’s not forcing itself on me. It doesn’t proceed fast or slow. It just sits there, silent, waiting for the moment I allow it burst forth with all the power of two imaginations working together to make flowers bloom, birds chirp, hearts break.
Then I might pause.
And saturate in whatever I’ve just encountered.
Then resume again, never missing a beat. ♦
HEAR: “Slow Ride” by Sublime
READ: The Kansas City Star’s style guide, which largely influenced Ernest Hemingway’s writing style and voice.
VIEW: Anthony Bourdain jokes about TV hosts that seem to avoid using their own voice.
I do read my work out loud. But only to myself. 😂 It actually helps me spot sticky places where the flow is interrupted by an extraneous word, or even a typo. I catch a lot of there, they're, their errors when I'm reading out loud. And places where I've doubled a a word by mistake. 😉
I like my writing voice better than my speaking voice. I tend to hide behind humor armor in real life conversations. You'll definitely find that snarkiness in my writing, too, but the sweet stuff comes out more easily for me on the page.
My favorite fiction to write (and read) is a good mix heart, hurt and humor.
And rhythm is important. The rhythm of a sentence. Of a scene. The back and forth of dialogue. I think that comes from my music and theater background. If I need a character to take a dramatic pause before they say the last line of a chapter... I'm going to give you the right number of syllables of action to achieve that "space".
Then I'll resolve the chord for ya.
“It’s as if the whole shenanigan of literature is a dialogue between two people — reader and writer — that’s designed to be carried out entirely within our heads, a space that gives a higher-order significance to everything passing through it.”
Beautiful insight, and puts in high detail why a writer needs to always consider and honor that alchemical head-space that writing takes place in.