Having — and honing — a unique writing voice means embracing the quirks that make your words sound uniquely “you.”
Part of having a unique writing voice is embracing the verbal tics that you turn to again and again — those words and ways of phrasing that some call “bad habits,” but I prefer to reframe as “writing quirks.”
Think you’re the only one who uses tons of em dashes or starts sentences with “and” or “but”? Check out our editors’ quirks, and then feel better about (and embrace!) your own:
Because of an excess of schooling in my formative years, I stuff unrelated historical references into my posts — even if what I’m writing about has nothing to do with 16th century monastic rules, I’ll shoehorn them in***. I can also get a little
harsh sarcastic pointed in my personal writing. In both instances, I’ll use footnotes to explain the reference or soften the edge; sometimes I also use them to get even more, um, pointed without interrupting the flow, or just to sneak in an extra joke.
Do I overuse them? Probably, where “probably,” means “definitely.” But I love them and I’m sticking with ’em.*****
*Like this one!**
**See what I did there?
I tend to write run-on sentences because, first of all, I think they’re funnier and I typically write rants and a run-on sentence mimics the slow build-up and frenetic energy of ranting, and also I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls in my formative years and the long-winded patter of that show is ingrained in me, and also I write the way that I talk, and I tend to talk without breathing, but beyond all of those reasons, run-on sentences are simply more interesting to me, both visually and in a sort of “inner monologue cadence while reading” kind of way, and I like them and I use them and I am not ashamed.
Although short sentences are fine, too. It’s good to vary sentence structure.
I stuff as many clauses as possible into every sentence, regardless of necessity, utility, or aesthetics. Parentheses make me happy. (Why is it that they always seem to hold the essence of what I’m trying to say?!) I’ve yet to meet a pair of em dashes — and I meet them often — I didn’t want to immediately adopt. Colons: I buy them by the dozen, and still manage to use them all by their expiration date.
My quirk is part of who I am and how my voice — both spoken and written — sounds. It just means that editing includes an extra step: breaking my own cascades of baroque syntax into clearer, more readable (though perhaps also more pedestrian), mostly de-parenthesized**** sentences.
**** I know footnotes are Michelle’s quirk, but still: just wanted to say I’m not sure “de-parenthesized” is an actual word, plus I had a colon that was about to expire.
I had an English teacher who told the class that we had to know the rules to break the rules. What I heard was, “As long as you know how to wield a semi-colon, you can use punctuation marks like brush strokes. If you can construct a sentence, you can deconstruct a paragraph. Toss the rules out the window.” Over twenty years later… I punctuate in a manner that would make Mrs. Kochien cringe.
This is a public admission of my control-freak nature: I want people to read my words with a specific rhythm. So, I use punctuation, line spacing, and sentence length to create musicality, rules be damned. If I feel as if a long pause should be taken while reading my work, I’ll attempt to orchestrate it with punctuation.
This is how I hear my own voice in my head, so this is how I write. Incomplete sentences, tabs, dots, dashes, line breaks. They help me sculpt my words.
(I also indulge in frequent non-sequitur usage.)
I’ll admit I share Ben’s love for the em dash. I’ll often find paragraphs where I have too many, which — I’ll admit — can become confusing. But ultimately, it forces me to reread, to pick and choose where these breaks and breaths should go, and to hear my voice, my flow, and my rhythm.
And I’m a sucker for alliteration: I first phrased “breaks and breaths” as “pauses and breaths.” I also can’t help but start my sentences with “and.”
(I’ve written a few posts on decluttering your prose, and I’ll admit that “can’t help but” is one of those unnecessary phrases I use, along with “I’ll admit.”)
I’m also prone to run-on sentences mixed with shorter, incomplete ones. Like this. And this. My incomplete sentences often begin with “to” — I’ll write and find my flow and then realize I’m rambling, so instead of completing my thought, I’ll insert a period. To create some breathing space. To manipulate the rhythm.
Finally: I’m mindful of my adverb use, but I really, truly, deeply love the word “ultimately” — I honestly rely on it too much. I’ll gladly use adverbs excessively just to show you how much I love it.
One of my personal favorites is the single sentence transition after a long, descriptive paragraph. I’ll show you:
Here is one of the most vivid memories I have: I am nine years old and standing in front of my elementary school, waiting with a group of kids to be picked up by our parents and taken home. The children are talking and laughing and screeching; they are rummaging through their backpacks for snacks to shove into their mouths; they are doing the things that children like to do before they become self-aware of their actions and are embarrassed to be doing them in public. A white Toyota pulls up, and the clamor quiets as they watch a woman step out of the car. She is wearing a sparkling Yves Saint Laurent gown and black heels. The woman walks towards us, and we can hear her heels clacking on the pavement. The children begin to whisper to each other: Who is this woman?
The woman is my mother.
I have a penchant for pie charts. Sometimes a goofy graph adds just the punch a piece needs to illustrate whatever point it is that I’m trying to make.
Plus they make me giggle.
Also, I begin sentences with all the wrong words. So. And. But. Or. I’m a rule-follower in my regular life, but I cannot resist starting sentences with conjunctions. Or writing one word sentences. And fragments.
Finally, I frequently tie my posts in a neat little bow in my final sentence, wrapping everything up, feeling awesome about myself as I drive home a point. I then realize how cheesy the sentence is – I may as well write, “In conclusion,” at the beginning of it – and I delete it before publishing.
*****The other benefit of the superfluous footnote? You can always get the last word! What are your writing quirks?