Writing Right with Dmitri: In Your Own Words
Do you remember all those British courtroom dramas back in the day? The ones where the be-wigged barrister said patronizingly to the obviously frightened landlady, 'Now, madam, tell us…in your own words…exactly what happened on the Night in Question.' Didn't that make you want to spit?
In her own words? Whose was she going to use – the judge's? (Besides, he was asleep.) Why did they always say that?
About 20 years ago, I used to be pretty active in a theatre group. Before every performance, the director – a talented and experienced individual – would gather us backstage for a brief pep ceremony. We'd all touch hands in a circle and close our eyes.
'When we go out there,' he'd intone, 'Every man will become Spencer Tracy, and every woman Katherine Hepburn. Break a leg!'
Now, this burned me up, for two reasons. One, I really don't like the acting styles of Tracy and Hepburn. It's just a personal thing. The fact that our director was from Up East and was a big Hepburn fan was not my problem. Being Southerners, we might have preferred to turn into Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. The second reason was more cogent: as an actor, I didn't want to turn into anybody but the character I was playing – say, one of Shakespeare's fools. (I know, typecasting.) I wanted to speak with my own unique voice. Otherwise, why was I there?
You see what I'm getting at, don't you? Far too many people try to tailor their writing to imitate their idols. No matter how good those idols are, that's not a healthy thing to be doing. Sure, an homage or pastiche is nice once in a while. But the best way to honour the work of your mentors is to develop your own, unique voice – to tell the story 'in your own words'..
Finding Your Voice
It's all very well to say, 'Use your own voice.' But how do you do that? The first step is to resist the impulse to imitate what's trendy. Sure, you like that guy on TV. But don't try to talk like him. Make jokes in your own way. You don't have to make 'top ten' lists, if that's not your thing. Heck, maybe you make 'top nine' lists.
The next thing to do is to develop an allergy to picking up the latest catchphrases. We all do it. I remember how annoyed my mother used to get as us as kids, because we'd pick up every phrase going at school. Kind of like a cold. We said, 'groovy' for awhile. Then everything was 'far out'. Yes, children, people used to talk like that. Our rule of thumb was to keep an ear out for the grownups, though. Once your mom started saying, 'That really bugs me,' it was time to get a new phrase. If adults were using it, it had gone mainstream and was now totally out-of-date.
A third thing to avoid is letting other people dictate what you should say. This includes writers of useless advice columns, such as the one you're reading now. You like to express yourself a certain way? Go for it. Don't let us snob you out of it.
The trick, though, is figuring out how to make your personal style work for you. Listen to feedback. This week, I wrote about a historical person, 'If she had lived in another part of the world, her skills would have been recognised.' The feedback I got from the editor was that he didn't understand – of course her skills were 'recognised'. They just weren't 'rewarded'. Now, where I come from, 'recognised' can also mean 'rewarded'. But if it doesn't work for the reader, that does me no good at all. I rewrote the sentence.
Personal style is a compromise in writing. You've got to make yourself understood, but at the same time, you want to sound like you, and not the fourteenth knock-off of some other writer.
The rewards (if not the recognition) can be satisfying. When somebody comments, 'I knew that article was by you, right away,' you feel a bit of pride. And you should. You've got your own voice.
Just for Fun
See if you can identify these writers by their voices. Answers below.
- The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short, and the pen is very sharp.
- The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
- No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.
- If ever there was an aviary overstocked with jays it is that Yaptown-on-the-Hudson, called New York.
- To you, I'm an atheist.
To God, I'm the loyal opposition.
- Makeover is a wonderful idea. Who wouldn't want to find out that all they needed to be happy, popular, successful, and gosh-darn-it-all satisfied with themselves was a lick of paint and a new pair of shoes?
- Terry Pratchett.
- Douglas Adams.
- Charles Dickens.
- O Henry.
- Woody Allen.
- Dmitri Gheorgheni.