Bad Writing Advice

I have a file on my computer desktop labeled “Advice That Doesn’t Help.” Here’s an item I added to the file last week. (It’s from “Voice in Writing,” a blog post by Writer’s Digest editor Cris Freese).

“You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?”

I was excited when I read this – until I read on and saw that Freese didn’t have a single suggestion about how to do it.

I think there’s a reason he omitted that useful bit of information. Creating a unique voice for yourself is hard to do. J.D. Salinger pulled it off – brilliantly and unforgettably – when he wrote Catcher in the Rye in the voice of the teen-aged Holden Caulfield. And Kay Thompson did it – delightfully – when she wrote the Eloise books. (I’m going to visit an exhibit about Eloise while I’m in New York for a long weekend.) Once you’ve read those books, there’s no way you’ll ever forget the voice of Eloise: “After all, I’m only six!”

But you and I usually are writing as ourselves. That means most of our words and sentence structures have been around a long time – perhaps hundreds of years. Millions of other people have already used them.

“Why should you write like everyone else?” Cris Freese asks. Here’s why, Cris: I have no choice. I’m stuck with the same language tools as everyone else. 

Take this trip to New York, for example. (I wish you could!) Here are the words available to me: birthday, sister, pizza, theater, friends, New York Historical Society, walk, Broadway, Times Square, cousin, Bryant Park, Penn Station, Long Island Rail Road, New York Public Library.

What you’ve just read is a list, plain and simple. I haven’t even attempted to follow Freese’s advice about writing “in your own unique way.” And yet I think that list of old, oft-used words gives you get a sense of who I am, and what will be happening over the next few days, and what sets me apart from everyone else who just flew into JFK.

I think Freese has it backwards. Here’s my advice: Aim to get in touch with who you are and what matters to you. Then you can start writing – and readers will hear your voice, loud and clear.

Kay Thompson's Eloise


2 thoughts on “Bad Writing Advice

  1. Anne W

    I agree. The problem with his advice is that it’s more along the lines of self help. There is a difference between voice and simply trying to ‘be different.’ A good example of this is Ivanka Trump constantly using ‘architect’ as a verb. Yes, it is different, yes we do understand what she is trying to say, however clumsily, but it does not create a unique voice. Sometimes the familiar words are so well worn that we quickly grasp the idea without subbing our toe on awkward usage.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    I love your example of Ivanka Trump and “architect.” In fact I was trying to come up with a current example myself and couldn’t – so an extra helping of thanks, Anne!

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