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Voice Is a Choice: 5 Ways to Write with Chutzpah

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Have you ever read a book that knocked you out like a shot of Nyquil? How about an author who spends the whole book burying their ideas under a pile of jargon and general dullness? This, my friends, is mainstream academia. And in the nonfiction world, it is an epidemic.

To avoid falling prey to this terrible disease, there’s only one thing you can do to actually engage your audience long enough to get your ideas across: have a voice.

Written voices work the same way as spoken voices: you recognize individuals by the way they sound. But when it comes to “professional” or “academic” writing, most of us have been trained to suppress our individuality, scrubbing out our voices in favor of something that sounds a little smarter.

This is a travesty, not only for your reader (who is probably bored to tears), but also for you: you’re writing without flavor! So let’s put the “I” back into “writing” and look at 5 ways to recapture your voice.

#1. Write like you talk

It is an ever-present temptation to drop a bunch of jargon on people, because, let’s be honest, it makes it seem like you know what you’re talking about. But for most people, it’s confusing and distracts from the main idea.

Just write like you talk. Feel free to use slang, idioms, interjections, and all that fun stuff that you say out loud but would probably never dare to write.

Take a lesson from The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, who topped Time Magazine’s 2013 “Top 25 Best Bloggers,” and is also the queen of Write-Like-You-Talk. In most of her writing, she sounds like she’s just joking with us over a cup of coffee. But with her conversational style, Lawson has thousands of faithful readers and 373K Twitter followers. Now that’s a voice.

#2. Nominalization shnominalization

Let me introduce you to a little trick that people who want to sound smart (aka you and me) often use without even knowing it. It’s called nominalization. Basically, it means turning a verb into a noun, which somehow makes you sound highbrow and classy.

It’s saying something like, “I’d like to express my appreciation of your coming with me,” instead of, “I appreciate that you came with me.”

Or, for a more exaggerated example, “My proposition is for the immediate cessation of your use of nominalization, as it does not make a contribution to the increasing of your reputation,” versus, “Stop turning your verbs into nouns. No one thinks you’re cool.”

#3. Tell stories

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before. Humans are storied creatures. We engage with stories in a way that we just can’t with data or abstractions. Did you just make a really big point? Tell a story to hit it home! And if you tell a personal story, you get ten gold stars.

Take it from future BK author Seth Adam Smith, best known for his viral blog post “Marriage Isn’t For You.” In his latest post, “Want to be Independent, Stable, and Successful? Get Married,” Smith tells the story of how his wife Kim inspired him to pursue writing, which has eventually made him more successful (and luckily, also led him to Berrett-Koehler).

#4. Don’t unpack your whole suitcase

Remember that one time, someone asked you for that one thing that was at the bottom of your suitcase, and you had to pull out everything and make a huge mess just to get them a stick of gum?

This is also a major pitfall of academic writing. I hear it in classes all the time: “Can you unpack that a little more?” Now I’m going to say something that will make my professors shudder: Don’t unpack that. Just say it and move on.

Don’t give us the history, the causes and effects, or the alternatives if those pieces aren’t necessary to make your point. When you’re trying to get your idea to boil, over-explaining brings it down to a simmer.

Let’s look at another future BK author, Maya Schenwar, who is the editor-in-chief of Truth Out and writes frequently on the failures of the prison system. In her recent article, “Prison Phone Company Whines, -WE MISS YOU!’” Schenwar doesn’t spend time talking about the history of phone use in prisons or the phone rates of individual states-she gets straight to her point: private phone companies bar prisoners from being able to access their communities.

#5. Unleash your inner artist

We’ve all got a little poet inside of us. Or a novelist. Or a stand-up comic. Let those word-crafters out! Make weird metaphors that are strangely enlightening. Tell a joke. Write a pun. These are the touches that will make your writing unique and enjoyable.

When talking about voice, I can’t resist pointing to novelist Anne Lammott, who is blunt and hilarious and completely herself. Here’s a line from her memoir Traveling Mercies :

“I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Yes, someone wrote that in a book. Very successfully, might I add. So give yourself permission to barge over barriers, be funny, and be creative. Those are the things that give you a voice worth reading.