Now when Christopher Hitchens writes, I listen. In the June 2011 edition of Vanity Fair, Hitchens examines what is meant by ‘a writer’s voice’ and, as always, manages it quite brilliantly.
Since his diagnosis of cancer, I have found his writing even more compelling than before. I don’t always agree with what he says, but the way he writes it makes it impossible not to read. And that’s because he has a great ‘voice for writing’.
It’s no surprise that the word ‘voice’ is used in writing, even though it sounds like a contradiction in terms. In fact, even Hitchens admits he got it wrong at first and ‘fesses up in the article:
I owe a vast debt to Simon Hoggart of The Guardian (son of the author of The Uses of Literacy), who about 35 years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write “more like the way that you talk”.
Now, let me go back to a sentence I wrote a couple of paragraphs ago: ‘When Christopher Hitchens writes, I listen.’ That’s not a mistake. I’m not getting Vanity Fair via an audiobook here, but when I read (as most people do), I play back the words in my head, effectively meaning I listen.
And that sums up where a writing voice comes from and it’s where so many people go wrong. I’m not saying for a second that my prose is the most eloquent in the world, but then my everyday speech isn’t littered with witty aphorisms, quotes from Shakespeare and Wilde and bon mots of which Stephen Fry would be jealous.
I talk ‘normally’, by which I mean I hold regular conversations with people about the weather, what was on TV last night, the weekend’s football results and the price of petrol. Consequently, when I write, by and large, that’s how my writing comes over.
In the UK, there’s a certain intellectual snobbery that comes with reading literary fiction or the ‘broadsheets’.
Tabloid newspapers such as the Sun are often looked down upon by supposedly-intelligent people for ‘being for thickos’, whereas the reason people don’t like them is because their views aren’t mutually aligned. Actually, the Sun is an exceptionally clever newspaper because it usually manages to get over quite complex stories and issues in an extremely short number of words.
If you want to get an in-depth political analysis of the situation in Afghanistan, you won’t get it in the Sun, but what it will tell you are the most recent developments and, more importantly, the salient facts in fewer – probably shorter and easier-to-understand – words than, say, the Telegraph.
But this snobbery doesn’t stop with newspapers – in fact, it’s anything that’s broadly popular. When JK Rowling published the first Harry Potter novel, it crept out under the radar and gained success by word of mouth among children and the parents of its devotees. By the time the series was on its way to world domination, a fairly sizeable ‘literary’ backlash had erupted.
Although popularity doesn’t always guarantee excellence, in the case of writing it usually means that the writer is doing something right. In other words, the writers are ‘speaking to their audience’. Critics may abhor clichÃ©s, but the simple fact is that we all use them every day, even if we try not to.
In our house we read a lot of books to our daughter, especially before bed and it’s noticeable that the ones that get the best reception are the ones that are sound good when they’re read out loud.
Julia Donaldson, the new Children’s Laureate and author of The Gruffalo, admitted when interviewed on Desert Island Discs by Kirsty Young that she reads all her books out loud to make sure they sound right before they’re published. Her continued popularity is surely no coincidence.
Internet = writing fail
Sadly, the the arrival of the internet has contributed to poor writing. You see, the web has turned everyone into a writer (come on, who hasn’t started a blog or, at the very least, contributed to one?). What this means is that many people, who previously only ever produced company reports, policies, strategy documents, spreadsheets (you get my drift, yeah?), have now found an outlet for their ‘creativity’.
The problem is that they don’t (well, I can only assume they don’t) read their work through before publishing. And if they do and think it sounds OK, then I’m not sure I want to meet them because, wow, they sound boring.
For some reason, a lot of people feel the need to cram as many long words and technical details into a sentence as possible – even if it’s not a technical piece. All in an effort to prove their intelligence, ability and relevance.
There’s a worry that by not using three-syllable words and lots of relative clauses, they will be considered somehow ‘inferior’. However, what it simply shows is that they haven’t yet discovered their ‘writing voice’ and are simply lacking in confidence.
If they can convince themselves to read their work out loud and make it sound as if they’re talking, they might yet do that.
Does that sound like you? Are you up for the challenge? OK, deep breath, get your words in front of you and speak…