I haven’t discussed writing style in a while, but in keeping with my revisiting-old-topics riff, I thought I’d give it another look. As it happened, I could thank my friend Cindy Lou for helping me find my writing voice 20+ years ago. The assistance she provided actually began with an argument. However, arguments can lay bare some truths about who we are and why we do what we do. This one, fortunately, had positive results.
I had been answering guest letters for Disney for a couple years by that point, and I had made the shift from academic to corporate writing. However, I was trying to enforce that style on Cindy Lou’s writing as she was taking over my duties writing for a couple of the resorts. Looking over my markups, she looked a little disappointed and said, “It’s all a bit stiff. Why can’t you just write what you mean?”
That question is probably the most useful piece of writing advice I ever received.
Cindy Lou forced me to think about what I was doing. At the time, I was writing what I thought the company wanted me to say. However, that wasn’t necessarily me talking. That was me writing in the Voice of Authority, which in my head sounds like my father lecturing me when I’ve done something stupid: not fun, and yes, a bit stiff. I had to start thinking about how I would explain or apologize for certain situations the way I would prefer to say things. If “the company” didn’t like that style, I figured an editor would let me know.
Writing what you mean is a great way to hone your style, especially if you put the emphasis on you: what do you mean when you describe the propulsion system of a rocket or the management philosophy of an auto dealership? You’re not just sharing the company line, you’re writing down how you understand that company line. Which words do you use? How do you interpret your research or directives? What beliefs do you have that shape which facts you choose to emphasize? What books or experiences have shaped your attitudes toward your topic? Your answers to these questions are reflected in the words you use. The more you exercise that freedom of expression, the better and more confident you become at developing your style.
This blog, for instance, has improved over the years simply because I’ve had more practice doing it and I’ve gotten more comfortable writing in the voice of a “trusted peer” rather than as the (again) more formal “experienced professional.” The goal is to have a conversation, or at least share information in a way that’s helpful and likely to be accepted by my audience, most of which is quite a bit younger than me.
In the case of engineering writing, “writing what I mean,” is a mix of insights from actual engineers and my own English-major’s perspective on those insights. I’ve never taken any engineering classes, so I learned the discipline by figuring out how the vocabulary worked. When I hand off my writing to the engineers for technical review, they let me know when I’ve gotten something wrong, but otherwise, I’ve learned to trust my instincts and follow the language. You’ll have your own approach, too, and the more you write and edit your work, the stronger that approach will become.
Therefore, rather than worry about how you think someone else would communicate, write things as you would prefer to say them and let the other person change things if they want. You won’t regret saying what you mean.