Question 2: Natural Writing

In the realm of reasons to leave a half-written blog post shelved for several months past its intended publication date, I’ve got one of the best. Let’s just say that my personal life has been going very well and I’ve been happily spending more time than usual away from my keyboard.

But because I really have been meaning to get back to those writing questions, today I’m finally going to talk about this one:

“How to sentence structure without sounding like an essay?”

Well, for me, it’s easier to work on a problem when I understand its parts. So let’s break down what I see as some of the factors that lead to Essay Speak.

(Caveat: there is no one correct way to write any more than there is only one good kind of writing. This advice is geared exclusively toward combating the formulaic nature of academic writing, not necessarily toward producing the finest of literature.)

1. Word choice.
2. Pattern redundancy.
3. Formality/distance.
which all plays into
4. Voice

As it happens, I’ve talked about some of these things before at another place for writers. I was a good deal more pompous back then, but my thoughts were still good, so I’m going to riff off of them here.

Word Choice:
Words are power. The right word gives you more power over your reader; the wrong one weakens your ideas.

Avoid vague language — words like “big” and “very” and “stuff” that don’t tell us what you really want us to know. Besides being uninformative, these words are also boring. Precision is not only easier to read, but often infuses more color. And why would you want to only come close to telling us what you want us to know, when you could use the right word and nail your ideas firmly into our brains?

Along with vague language, you also want to avoid tired, weak words. You can do this especially by paying attention to your verbs. Choose exciting verbs that push your sentence and the action forward and give you momentum. Dazzle, swagger, gleam, beguile, demand, force, bequeath. So much more interesting to read — and so much more informative — than your run-of-the-mill go, walk, do, be, ask. Try not to be passive with your language. Where possible, tell us what happens, not what is being done to something/someone. (See how one construction there is concise and the other wordy?) Also, words that are unexpected or that appeal to the senses are more engaging to the reader’s imagination and anchor them in your narrative.

That having been said, don’t force it. If you’re not comfortable with what you’re saying, your reader won’t be either — they can tell when you don’t sound like yourself. The thesaurus is especially not your friend if it leads you to incorrectly use words you don’t properly understand. The thing is that there’s no such thing as a true synonym. There are only related words that mean close to the same thing, but each has its own unique contextual applications and conveys its own individual flavor. You get a different idea about who I the author am, the tone of my voice, and what I mean if I say infuriated rather than angry.

And maybe most importantly, don’t use any words you don’t need to. (Need, of course, being dictated by style and not just meaning.)

Pattern redundancy:
This is one of the worst culprits where it comes to Essay Speak, and it’s inherent to the format of essay-writing. Statement, supporting idea, supporting idea, supporting idea. Repeat in new paragraph until essay is complete. It gets so easy to structure every sentence exactly the same way because what you’re doing is essentially math in written form — adding sentence to sentence until you’ve racked up enough to fill your page or word requirement. But there’s no passion that way, no spontaneity, no art, and no one wants to be reading that. Especially not in fiction.

You combat the academic doldrums with passion, spontaneity, and art.

Be concise, but be flexible. Get excited about what you’re saying, Get so worked up that your ideas aren’t even coming out as complete sentences. Vomit your feelings onto the page. Feelings don’t follow neat patterns. After you’ve written them down, when you’re in editing mode, that’s when you worry about making sure your sentences are grammatical enough to make sense. What matters most is that you’re definitely not going to be writing a series of “This is Spot. Spot is a dog. Spot likes playing catch. Catch is a fun game,” sentences. Short statements are good for punch here and there, but too many in a row become just as boring as meandering monsters with a million clauses.

Reading your work out loud is an excellent way to hear whether you’re repeating words or sentence structures. Also literally pulling your visual focus back far enough from the work to see the paragraphs as impressionistic shapes instead of a series of sentences can give you an immediate sense of whether you’re throwing down one same-size paragraph after another.

Formality/distance:
Word choice is a significant part of this, but it’s also about ideas and structure. You may imagine that speaking in a way that isn’t natural to you sounds intelligent or more organized than you innately are, and maybe you can manage to pull that off, but it’s like wearing a tuxedo on a first date. It’s distancing and your date can tell that you’re not letting them see your natural presentation. It’s a deliberate, obvious barrier. Readers can tell when you’ve removed yourself from the work and it’s alienating.

It’s no accident that academic writing feels impersonal. The distance allows facts to stand on their own merits without being shaded by the author’s opinions. So the natural counter to this deliberate removal of the author from the work is to put more of yourself in. Use quirky turns of phrase. Say things to the reader that presume a connection. Be revealing. Be provocative.

Be you.

And that brings us to,

Voice:
It takes courage to be a writer, and this is where you need it most because simply put, voice is you coming through in your writing. Your unique perspective, your idiosyncratic speech patterns, your own way of approaching and prioritizing and talking about your ideas. It can be scary to expose yourself this way, but this is where authentic writing comes from.

Mastering voice is simple but not necessarily easy. Just, be honest. Write what you actually feel, not what you imagine someone else wants to hear or what you think is the “right” way to say it. You are the only you, the only one bringing exactly your combination of experiences, education, vocabulary, attitudes, and humor to the written word. Show us the world through your eyes because no one else can do it. This is the opposite of Essay Speak, which aspires to ignorable sameness.

Write the way you would speak – but better, because in writing you have the ability to plan your words and only say the ones you mean to say – and do not do not do not try to be impressive. A reader can tell when you’re being honest, when you believe what you’re saying, when you’re confident and when you have conviction because you’re sincere. They can also tell when you’re full of crap and trying to wow with vocabulary and ideas and a style that are not your own.

Basically what I’m saying is that the best way to sound like a person and not an encyclopedia entry is to keep things light and fresh. People speak in unexpected and unpretty ways; essays follow neat patterns and try for one particular, unnatural voice. Once you’ve gotten your messy realness down onto the page, then you can clean it up to be whatever it needs to be.

And that, for whatever it’s worth, is my advice on how to sentence structure without sounding like an essay.

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