In Your Own Words
More Tips For New Writers (Part I)
Explain in your own words
Familiar phrase? Yes, we have all heard it many times in many different situations. This little phrase is used to convey subtly different meanings depending upon the circumstances in which it is used. At school, the teacher means “Don’t just copy chunks out of a book; show me you can write an essay”. In an examination the words mean “Prove that you understand the question and know the answer”. On an insurance claim form it means “Tell us what happened from your point of view”. From a Judge it means “Tell the truth without embellishment”.
What do all these people have in common? They want to hear what you know, what you think about things. They don’t want something you have copied from somebody else, they don’t want regurgitated chunks of something learned by rote, they don’t want to hear somebody else’s words repeated, they don’t want to hear excuses. They want to hear what you have to say. They want honesty.
Honesty is the best policy
If you want to write, you must learn to write honestly. By this I do not mean that it is essential for you to always tell the unvarnished truth (this article is not about personal development: it is about writing and moral debate has no place here). I mean use your own words, your own style, your own “voice”. Do not try to imitate a writer you admire. Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. That may be true enough but most imitations turn out to be poor copies of the original item. Make your writing the real deal; don’t give people the chance to say: “He’s that guy who tries to write like Stephen King”. Believe me, they won’t mean it as a compliment; what they are really saying is: “He’s that guy who tries to write like Stephen King but fails and (snigger, snigger) he doesn’t realise it”. Being honest has the undoubted advantage that it saves you having to remember what lies you told previously. It should also make you feel good and that‘s a bonus.
There have, of course, been instances where an unknown artist has created a painting in the style of a master and the work had been painted so skilfully that experts declared it to be authentic. Remember, though, the forger had skill of his own in the first place. Whether you are forging a masterpiece or a bank note, you need to possess skill as well as the appropriate tools. If you are new to writing, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to manage a convincing imitation of a famous author’s style. Indeed, you will probably find it difficult to even begin to analyse what makes a particular author’s writing uniquely personal. Writing “in the style of” can be a valuable exercise for trainee writers but it should only ever be an exercise, not a substitute for authenticity. If you have what it takes to be a writer, get out there, write and make sure your fingerprints are all over your work declaring it to be yours and yours alone.
No, not the computer software type: the type that happens when Joe `phones a friend. Joe says: “Hello.” and the friend instantly says “Hi, Joe.” If you write as yourself, your loyal readers will reach the stage where they recognise your work from reading a fragment without needing any clue from a by-line.
If you have something interesting to say, there is no need to put on a phoney voice (unless your intention is to make your audience laugh). You will probably not get to be President if you make all your speeches in the style of Homer Simpson. If you decide to put your message in writing, you should write it in your own words and in your own way. When you write, you have your own voice and you should not try to disguise it. Allow your audience to hear your voice and become familiar with it. Of course not everybody will like your voice one hundred percent all of the time: there is not one thing in this world which is liked by everybody always.
None of us is perfect
I don’t mean this in terms of never making a mistake: I just mean that, as human beings we all have imperfections. Keats says “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. I heartily concur but imperfections are, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder; a matter of personal taste. What is a blemish to you might be an endearing feature to me. There are also degrees of imperfection. A minor imperfection in an otherwise excellent work may be overlooked. A similar imperfection in bad piece of work might be the final straw which prompts the reader to throw the book across the room and vow never to read anything else by that author.
Whilst reading works of horror fiction by some of my favourite fiction writers, I have found the repeated use of certain words irritating; for some reason I dislike the use of “umbra” and “orb” in place of shadow and eyeball. (The subject matter of these books is of necessity dark and grisly things frequently happen to eyes.) As the remainder of the work is perfection (in my orbs, anyway) I am able to forgive this minor irritation and still eagerly anticipate each new publication by these authors. Other readers might be impressed by the use of these alternative nouns or not even notice them. Whatever your imperfection might be, never ever compound it with sloppiness. You cannot help being less than perfect, that is part of being human; there is no excuse for offering sloppy workmanship.