February 19

Don’t write “properly”

We've all been in front of the computer screen, Word open, hands on the keyboard… staring… thinking, “I have things to say. I have some sort of argument or plot forming, and I know I need to just start writing, but I need to say it properly.”

We judge our words before they're even on the page. In our attempts to ensure that our style adheres to what we think of as “good writing,” we smother our individual writing style.

Each genre has a common style, and that's fine.

robot with pen
Academic writing tends to have longer, complex sentence structures with more abstract concepts. Fiction writing tends to have shorter sentences with more concrete, visceral descriptions. Every genre has “typical” (arguably, cliche) phrases.

However, when you start trying to make sure your words and sentences match your genre's style, you stifle your voice before you even begin. It's your voice that makes your paper or essay or book unique. Readers want to hear authenticity and personality in your writing.

If you're too concerned about grammar and phrasing while you're first starting to write, you'll end up filtering what you actually want to say, and it'll come out sounding stilted and robotic. No one wants to read that, no matter how brilliant the underlying point.

How do you keep your unique voice?

In your first draft, put aside how you “should” write. Just write as if you were explaining your literature review or argument or plot to a colleague.
This draft will be more informal, but when we use simple language, we're more likely to get straight to the point. Remember, your primary goal is to clearly communicate to your reader. Be direct. Keep it real.

Let the draft rest.
Give yourself enough time that you can finish your first draft and get a good night's sleep, or at least get out of the house/office, before you go back to edit. Take your eyes off the computer for a while. When you come back, you will be so much more productive.

Go back to the draft and read it again for clarity.
Are you actually saying what you think you're saying? Make sure that your argument or plot is clearly presented. Try to think whether the reader could potentially have any questions. Go ahead and clear up any potential confusion.

Now you can go back and look for grammar and awkward phrases.
Once you've established what you want to say, you can go back and clean up your grammar and tweak how you say things. Putting off the editing until after the first draft ensures that your voice is still intact. A lot of people think that writing with “good grammar” is what kills their voice. Really, it's that they begin the writing process focused on grammar. Saving your grammar worries until later in the process prevents self-stifling.

At the very last, you can adjust your style.
It's true. Your academic paper will sound more formal than a casual explanation to a friend. At the end of this writing process, you can go back, remove phrases that are too casual, and substitute them with a more formal phrase. At least, when you do this last, your meaning and personality will remain mostly intact.

Okay, one more proofread.
I always do one last proofread before submitting anything. If you're not used to doing a thorough proofread, try the self-editing tips that I suggested a few weeks ago.

One last thing to remember: You shouldn't sound like every other author out there. You are a unique person, so if you say things a bit differently than other people, that's good! Have confidence, and write like the real person that you are.

Photo credit: iStockPhoto


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