The Value of the Human Voice

The type of writing you and I do for our careers may seem special in many ways.

We’re taught to write “conversationally.” To violate some of the standard conventions of English (like using this fragment sentence). To keep our words and sentences simple.

You and I definitely engage in a special kind of writing. Only it isn’t really special at all. The way we write is the basis of all good communication. Scott Simon brought this idea home to me.

Scott Simon hosts NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. I always enjoy listening to his well-written, provocative editorials. A couple of weeks ago, he read an editorial that praised an NPR consultant who had recently died.

I’ve quoted the editorial in part here with my own comments interspersed …

A Man Who Knew the Value of the Human Voice

A man known around here as “The Host Whisperer” has died.

David Candow was 74. He was a slightly tubby man from Newfoundland with a sly smile and a soft voice. I wanted nothing to do with him.

David was a consultant, brought in to work with NPR hosts and reporters on writing and delivery. People who make their living on the air often distrust consultants. We figure they’ve been brought in by executives who have usually never recorded more than a voicemail message, and want all hosts to sound the same.

David had put actual programs on the CBC in a 35-year career there, and worked around the world. But he didn’t try to impress with his experience. Instead, he said, “Let’s just talk,” and I came to learn that was how he saw the craft of broadcasting.

Let’s just talk. This phrase perfectly captures a core copywriting strategy: Write conversationally … like you talk. I try to follow this dictum in everything I write. I encourage new copywriters and the kids I tutor to “stop writing.” Instead, I tell them “talk out the words” onto the paper.

“Don’t announce,” he said. “Talk. Don’t act. Be yourself. It’s a very hard thing, eh?” he’d say. “To be yourself in front of all those people. But if you can be yourself, you’ll sound like no one else, and people really hear what’s real.”

Be yourself. As a copywriter, you’ll be asked to write in the voice of an investment guru, or an alternative-health maverick, or someone who’s deeply concerned about homeless teens. Regardless of the voice you write in, though, to be effective, you must always be genuine. The only way I know of to be genuine is to believe in what you’re writing … and to be yourself.

“Avoid dependent clauses,” he advised, “so people don’t have to chase a sentence the way a cat tries to catch up with the end of a string.”

Avoid dependent clauses. I can hear Jen Stevens’ voice here. Keep your sentences simple. “While we all want to be successful copywriters, only those who understand simple diction will succeed.” Too complex. Your reader has to chase meaning here. Instead say: “Want to be a successful copywriter? Write conversationally.”

“Try to avoid words that end in i-n-g. All those extra letters and sounds slow a sentence. Say, ‘The Dodgers play tonight,’ not ‘are playing.’”

Avoid words ending in i-n-g. Confession time. I frequently use the -ing form of the verb when I write. But I do my best to change those verbs to the more active and visual form when I edit.

“Say rain or snow, not precipitation. Avoid corporate and technical clichés, and, if you begin to hear a word too much—bandwidth, curate, eclectic and robust are my current least-favorites—it’s become a cliché; don’t use it.”

Keep your diction simple. Simple diction—simple words and clear, direct sentences—does not mean simple ideas. Simple diction means you want your reader to embrace your ideas … and that you’re not consumed by the need to impress him.

“And, like Orwell,” David said, “break any of these rules if it will help people remember what you say.”

Mark Ford dislikes the idea of copywriting rules. (Detests is closer to the truth.) He says rules prevent you from writing naturally. I’m sure Mark would agree with Candow that, instead of rules, you should follow “good ideas.” And sometimes, you need to go against those good ideas to be effective.

“If you can be yourself, you’ll sound like no one else, and people really hear what’s real.”

Isn’t that what you want? For your reader to really hear what’s real.

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Published: October 6, 2014

4 Responses to “The Value of the Human Voice”

  1. One of the many things I found out about myself while going through AWAI course is how I cannot follow rules, I find it better to make my own rules as I go! One of which is: JUST WRITE, dang it!

    Steve WOctober 6, 2014 at 2:14 pm

  2. Love this article - because it reminds me to 'shut-up' occasionally while writing and let the simplest words tell the story.

    You write what you teach Will. Thank you.

    Mike SearlesOctober 7, 2014 at 12:43 am

  3. Speaking of rules (calm down, Mark Ford) I like Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules that he picked up to remain invisible when writing.
    Like don't write hooptedoodle:which is spin up some pretty words or maybe sing a little song with language... Two more Leonard's rules jump from your article, Will: First, TRY TO LEAVE OUT THE PARTS READERS SKIP. and his most important rule that sums up all ten, a rule even Mark Ford might applaud: IF IT SOUNDS LIKE WRITING, I REWRITE IT.

    Richard LaceyOctober 11, 2014 at 9:35 am

  4. Excellent article, Will!

    Thank you for your timely and important messages.

    I'm looking forward to seeing you again next week at Bootcamp.


    Herb AOctober 11, 2014 at 3:51 pm

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