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This will make your writing sound more like you

Since writing for the internet became a 'thing', it’s not enough to have a good idea. We’re now judged on not only what we say, but the way we say it — in other words, our personal brand. If we want people to buy into our product or service, we can't just write interesting stuff. We have to let the reader in.


Personal branding is a symptom — if not the cause — of our connected-but-not-connected society. We want privacy online, but we can't hide behind a brand any more. We have to make our customer feel that they’re getting to know us.


It’s easy to dismiss personal branding as yet another marketing effort we’re expected to make. But what does it actually mean? I think it simply means writing with personality. This isn't a new thing. Way before the internet, the books and articles that sold well were the ones that sounded like the author was talking to you and only you. In other words, now as then, if you want to get something across to an audience, you have to sound like a person.


The problem is, building a personality through writing is hard to do. When we talk, it's easy: we don't just have our words but our facial expressions, hand gestures and body language to help us. Nuances like humour, sarcasm and empathy are easy to get across when we can use visual as well as aural cues.


When we write, it's harder to be so animated. I know this more than most —I’ll often chat to a business leader or expert who sounds great in person, only to find their manuscript dry and inaccessible.


What happened? Where did they go? Why don't they sound like them?


What we’re talking about here is a problem as old as the written word itself — tone of voice. And there's a reason businesses employ copywriters to get it right: how you sound is as important as the product you sell. That’s because good copywriting doesn’t just talk about the product itself, it tells customers how they should feel when they experience it.


So, in business and in books, personality matters. But how do you develop your own ‘brand voice’? How do you write so you sound more like yourself?


Switch your mindset

A popular piece of advice is to 'write how you speak'. I'm not sure about that (writing is quite a different form of communication, as we saw above), but one thing we should do is approach writing like we approach speaking. In other words, without overthinking.

For some reason we’ve turned writing into a Big Important Act, and that’s made it intimidating. We switch on our ‘writing voice’, which usually means employing all sorts of acrobatics to make it work. We spend longer hunting for the right word, we try to sound authoritative, we explain things in a more convoluted way. This doesn't just make our writing worse, but it creates an immediate barrier between who we really are and what we sound like on the page.


So here’s the thing: you don’t actually have to use different vocabulary in your writing to what you use when you speak. In fact, you shouldn’t be hunting for the mot juste at all — just using short, Anglo-Saxon words that do the job.


A thesaurus won’t help you to sound any smarter than you already are, and you’ll end up with words that are seldom-used and don't sound like you. So keep it simple — and don’t make writing a bigger deal than it is.


Learn what punctuation means (and how to use it)

One of the reasons emojis have become so popular is because they help us convey some of the subtext we can't provide through writing alone. A wink shows we're joking, a smile softens negative feedback, a grimace helps the reader resonate. But when emojis aren't appropriate, our tone of voice has to come from the structures we put around our words and sentences.


In other words, punctuation.


Punctuation is tone of voice. It can show your reader that you’ve paused, emphasised something, added extra information or want to create drama. It can help segment your ideas, build tension or highlight a single thought. It can make you sound conspiratorial, funny, surprised, ironic… all of those emotions you didn’t think you’d be able to get across in your writing. In short, the way you arrange words using full stops and commas doesn’t just help your writing make sense. It changes how you sound.


If you’re not confident using punctuation in all its glory, practise. It will give you more tools in your toolkit for sounding like you want to sound. (And here’s a tip: editors rarely add commas.)


When you feel like writing, write quickly

I write for a living and have worked with books for 20 years and I still struggle when I need to just ‘come up with something’. Even for professionals, writing isn’t just a tap you can turn on.


I have, however, found that ideas come to me when I’m least expecting them, so I’ve learnt to write when I have that energy. Obviously with kids and jobs and other responsibilities this isn’t always possible, but as far as you can, try to harness your ideas when they come. This not only helps you get down your best material, but it helps you sound more like you, because with good ideas comes a more natural way of writing. So the quicker you can get those ideas down, the more you'll sound like you.


This is because, when we get a flash of inspiration, the power of the idea takes away the inhibitions we associate with writing. After all, there’s no time to overthink when your fingers are trying to keep up with your brain.


Some people use Evernote or Trello to capture ideas on the go, but I find the iPhone notes app is as good as anything. In fact, I’ve been known to write whole chapters on my phone. As disciplined as you might be as a writer, sometimes a phrase or idea will come to you out of nowhere, and your phone is the only way you’re going to guarantee to get that down.


Read other people (out loud)

Most writers say that the best training for writing is reading, so it follows that the best way to sound like you is to hear other people sounding like them.


Read other people's work, then find out what it is about their writing that gives it personality. Analyse how they do it, then try to use that in your own work. Most importantly, read out loud. You’ll spot the sentences that work and the ones that don't. My personal favourite is pretend I'm recording a voiceover for a video — if it works out loud, it will work on paper.


 

Whether you call it ‘building a personal brand’ or not, sounding like you in your writing isn’t as hard as it seems. But it’s an art as a well as a science: you need to not only understand how language works, but develop the flair and the confidence to produce it.


Then, when you have a good foundation, you’ll find you'll emerge from behind whatever it is you’ve been putting in your way. Suddenly, it will be easier to be yourself.




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