Writing: Finding my tone

Support me (or one of the other 250 Write-a-thon participants) as we “write it forward” to make it possible for other writers to attend Clarion West.

I started writing this post six years ago; amusingly, it’s just as true today as it was then. Including the part about the person asking me if I’d written the book. I’ll be spending the next six weeks rewriting a novella as part of the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Please stop by the Write-a-thon website to support me (or one of the other 250 writers) as we “write it forward” to make it possible for other writers to attend Clarion West.

BooksYesterday someone asked me “So, did you write your book?”

The answer is yes…and no.

In the past 20 years, I’ve written one novella and several short stories. I’ve also started several book projects.

For many aspiring fiction writers, the problem is story, or plot, or simply putting words on the blank page or screen.

For me, the problem is tone. Each of my fiction projects has a different tone, but (until after I studied at Viable Paradise last fall) none of them seemed to be my tone. I’ve seen this in the work of other writers who achieve a distinctive tone when working in a particular sub-genre but somehow “gray out” into blandness when they tackle a different type of story. I think that I’m only just now finding my sub-genre.

Meanwhile, people telling me to “write what people will want to buy” isn’t helpful.

It makes me think of a New Yorker “About Town” piece from many years back about novelist Larry McMurtry. His mother once attended a public reading he was giving and rose from audience to ask McMurtry why he wrote such “depressing” stories. His reply:

“I’m writing for me, Mom, not for you.”


To engage website readers, replace “we” with “you”

To engage website visitors, shift the focus from what your organization is doing for them to what they can do with your products and services.

photo showing people pointing to youWhen I edit a client’s website, the first thing I look at is tone. If the content makes the reader feel passive, powerless, or bored, I spice it up. Sometimes spicing it up involves adding more substantive, useful information. But, oddly, often all it requires is changing a few words. This has become so instinctive for me that I don’t often analyze how I’m doing it.

Recently a woman whose website I was editing asked how she could write copy that wouldn’t need to be edited and recast. This forced me to look at exactly what I was doing to enliven her copy. Here’s what I discovered:

I change sentences that leave the reader in a passive position (relative to the website) to sentences that focus the spotlight on the reader and his or her experience.

Example: “We have arranged for rapid check-in.” becomes “You’ll enjoy rapid check-in when you arrive.”

While this is natural for me, as an outside consultant, it’s difficult for in-house writers. That’s because they are so aware of how hard the organization has worked on a project they can’t resist the temptation to pat themselves or their colleagues on the back. They don’t notice that it comes across as subtly off-putting to the reader — particularly on a website where every topic begins with a description of how admirable the organization (“we”) is .

The cold, hard, fact is that the reader just doesn’t care; the reader wants to know what’s in it for him or her. Organizations like Amazon.com recognize that. They don’t tell you how they’ve been working their tails off to make the site convenient for you. They tell  you about all the things you can now do with their site.

Example: “We have chosen iPad photography as the topic for the next meeting.” focuses on the exclusive little group making decisions. It could be recast to use a genuine, inclusive “we”: “We’ll be discussing iPad photography.” Even better, it could focus on the website visitor:  “Bring your experiences and questions about iPad photography to the next meeting.”

My client recognized the change of tone that resulted, and said she was going to give it a try.

What do you think? Does shifting from the organizational “we” to a customer-focused “you” make a significant difference? Are there downsides to it?

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