“You’re much funnier in person.”
Someone said this to me at a conference recently. They meant it as a compliment. They were being nice.
It threw me into an internal state of panic.
Funnier? What did you read? Was it horrible, in which case, where is it now and how can I kill it? Or…oh god oh god…was it something I actually consider to be really funny? Because if it’s something where I gave it my best shot, I’m screwed. I don’t want to be funnier in real life. I don’t want to be anythinger in real life! I’m a writer! It’s where I’m supposed to be most like myself! I’d be much happier if you came up up said “Your writing is so funny – but in real life, you’re a massive let-down.” or “Big fan of your work! Less so you.” I’d love that. I’d be fine with that! Just don’t kick me in my writing!
I know some writers who are much funnier in real life. Obviously I’d never tell them, because, see above. But here’s the interesting thing: the longer they write, the funnier their writing sounds. It warms, it gets gnarly and adventurous and disrespectful, and it takes more risks.
The longer they write, the less of a divide there is between their virtual and actual wit.
Humour takes confidence. It requires a somewhat reckless use of your imagination, and it’s riddled with potential failure. To crack a joke online is to risk being misinterpreted by millions of people and get electronically eviscerated. You can write something sarcastic at a friend (because what else are friends for?) and mysteriously have it reach a much wider audience, at which point strangers take offence and call you a “self-important asshole.” You can throw a mindless quip into Twitter and get arrested under the Criminal Law Act 1977. Humour is incredibly powerful and it’s the second-best way to get into the heads of strangers (here’s the best way).
But you’d better know what you’re doing.
I’d like to think humour is a skill, or even a sign of intelligence. I’d like to, but I don’t have any facts on the matter – and attempting to make standardized generalizations about humour? Bahahahaha! Phew.
But humour is a great yardstick for writing skill – and that mysterious quality found in great writers that we call voice.
Voice is writers sounding exactly like themselves. As absurd as that sentence is, it’s also bullseye-accurate. If you read a Bill Bryson book, it’s obviously written by Bill Bryson. You hit the first rambling self-assassination, the first “Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding“, and it couldn’t be written by anyone else.
Bill Bryson has got his Bill Bryson impression down to a fine art. It’s downright uncanny. I don’t know what Bill is like in real life, but interviews suggest yup, that’s him.
Bill Bryson is a veteran journalist, best-selling author, has lots of money and quite frankly doesn’t give a flying buggeration about what you think of him. He can speak his mind with total confidence. He doesn’t need to work on his written voice (although I’m sure he does, every day). But the rest of us, lacking that confidence…we probably need a bit of help.
Here are 7 ways to make your writing sound like you wrote it. They’ve worked for me – they might work for you.
1. Write While Still Asleep
My friend Cheri, author of the aptly-named Writing Through The Fog, writes here about the “dreamlike state” of her work when she gets up before the rest of the house. Haruki Murakami goes one further – he mesmerizes himself for months on end.
2. Write While Geeked Out
Ever read about something, some news item or quote or idea, and just been swept away by it – transfixed as a tickertape parade of feelings and revelations marched around your mind, knocking over everything you were thinking about, trashing the place and doping you to the eyeballs? Go with it. Grab a notebook, forget your geek-shame and just write like a lunatic. You may end up sounding a bit like Russell Brand in the New Statesman, but somewhere in there will be the real you.
3. Write With The Door Closed / Your Pants Off
Stephen King phrases this as “write with the door closed; edit with the door open” ie. your first draft should never be read by anyone but you, and that’s how you will have the confidence to kick off all the safeties and really go for it.
I phrase this as “Write with your pants off; edit with your pants on.” It covers exactly the same philosophy, but it involves the word “pants” – so it’s funnier.
4. Dictate It
So when you talk, you sound like yourself, but you don’t when you write? Then just turn one into the other. Duh.
5. Read An Author You Love And Try To Copy Their Style, Compare What You Wrote With Their Work, Cry, Wallow In Self-Hatred For A While, Get Angry, Conclude You’re A Worthless Hack, Curse The World And Just Damn Well Write Something
This works really, really well. It’s a bit hard on the heart, though. Use sparingly.
6. Write It In An E-Mail To Someone
Want to sound conversational? Then insert it into a conversation. Or take an actual conversation and adapt it into a piece of writing, carefully editing to keep the tone sounding largely the same. Note: this violates 3). Make sure it’s a really, really good friend who won’t resent being used in this way – or steal your ideas.
7. Get The Hell Out Of There
Where you write affects how you write. I sound most like myself on trains. (When I write my first book, I’m going to book some really long train journeys – not even kidding.) What do you need around you to unlock your voice? The hubbub of a coffee shop?* Waves crashing on a beach nearby? A shed?
Whatever it is, go there now. You’ve got work to do.
* Just started using this site, as suggested by Reine Gammoh. As soon as I turned it on, my mood soared and I started writing better.