The recent post on ‘Voice finding techniques’ from Cathy Yardley’s book prompted me to enter a comment about my experience trying to find a voice when writing non-fiction, and I’m grateful for Livia’s suggestion that I should expand on the points with some actual examples.
By way of introduction, here's a slightly abbreviated version of what I said in my original comment:
‘1. As a former academic used to writing for learned journals in the social sciences, I was given a great tip from my agent after he'd read the first draft of my self-help book on public speaking and presentation (Lend Me Your Ears). I was, he said, writing too much in the third person and it would read more easily if I addressed the reader directly in the second person. So I went through the whole thing again changing it as he suggested - and was amazed how much more accessible it became.
‘2. I also decided to use many more elided forms that are so common in spoken, but not written, English than I'd ever done before when writing books and articles - 'wouldn't' for 'would not', 'it's' for 'it is', etc. This again made it 'sound' much less formal and stilted to the reader than when I'd used the full forms.’
The following example comes from an early chapter in the book where I wanted to translate some fairly technical material on turn-taking in conversation (originally derived from a paper published by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson in the journal Language in 1974) into prose that would be accessible to anyone. My aim was to explain why ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ are OK in conversation but awful in speeches, and why pauses cause trouble in conversation but are good practice in speeches and presentations.
Here’s what it would have read like if I'd continued writing in the third person and used full rather than elided forms of subjects and verbs:
‘One of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new conversational turn. The previous speaker has just finished, and it is now time for someone to come up with an immediate response. But the next speaker is not always quite ready, and needs a moment or two to think what to say. If he or she delays, it might create an embarrassing silence and give the wrong impression. So the obvious solution is to start immediately, even if it is only to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. The noise kills off the silence at a stroke, shows that the next speaker has started to reply and reassures others that he or she is not being difficult or impolite.’
And here’s how it was actually published in Lend Me Your Ears (pp. 48-49):
‘One of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new conversational turn. The previous speaker has just finished, and it’s now time for someone to come up with an immediate response. But you’re not always quite ready, and need a moment or two to think what to say. If you delay, you might create an embarrassing silence and give the wrong impression. So the obvious solution is to start immediately, even if it’s only to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. The noise kills off the silence at a stroke, shows that you’ve started to reply and reassures others that you’re not being difficult or impolite.
I don’t claim to have completely cracked the problem of writing readable non-fiction, but I do think the changes made it more accessible than it would have been had I stayed with the first version. And that's why the emails, reviews and comments I've had from people saying that they found the book very readable has been more rewarding than they realise.
Max Atkinson is a communications researcher and consultant specializing in presentation and public speaking. You can see more excerpts from and purchase Max’s book Lend Me Your Ears here.