The following blog post is a segment from award-winning ghostwriter Allen R Smith’s recent post, “Writing What They Meant to Say,” about capturing his clients’ true voice. Read the full article here.
Skilled writers don’t just write what people say. They have to make up for hand and face gestures, repeated phrases and more through careful crafting of words.
When I tell people what I do for a living, the first thing out their mouth is, “Oh, I can’t write worth a damn. Never could. I don’t know how you do it.” But, chances are they do know how to speak. After all, they’ve been doing it since they were toddlers. The problem is, unlike their golf game, they’ve never been particularly interested in improving their style and delivery. As long as they get the general message across, they’re happy.
Writing is hard work. Don’t believe me? Try telling someone how to tie their shoes. Then, ask them to describe the same thing using the written word. Most non-writers will freely admit that putting thoughts down on paper is not something for the faint of heart. So, they usually stick to what they do best: communicate using the spoken word. In his 2019 article, “Why Is Writing More Difficult Than Speaking?” Kenneth Beare wrote:
Writing in English needs to follow rules of grammar much more closely than in spoken English. For example, if someone says ‘Please borrow me your pen’ in conversation, it’s clear from the context that the speaker intended to say ‘Please lend me your pen’. In written communication, words are even more important because they lack visual context. Especially if you are working in a business setting, making mistakes can cause miscommunication which might lead to problems. In conversation, you can smile and make a good impression. With writing, all you have are your words.
The benefit of verbal communication is that it gives you an opportunity to emphasize free-form thoughts by adding, “What I meant to say is…” or “The bottom line is…” along with an infinite number of hand gestures, facial expressions, and assorted harumphs, ticks, winks, and spufftss. You don’t get to do that in writing. You have one shot at capturing your reader’s attention and that’s it. There are no do-overs.
When my ghostwriting clients share their amazing stories with me, they anticipate I’ll be using an informal, conversational writing approach that includes disfluencies like “um,” “ah,” and “youbetchya.” But, they’d be wrong. Unless they’re an essential part of the dialogue, I cling to an imaginary centerline using prose that’s attractive to all levels of readers, from people with advanced college degrees to those who have barely finished high school.
Ghostwriters also have to appeal to readers of all shapes and sizes, from all geographic regions. While the vast majority of my clients probably understand the meanings of “hitting the nail on the head” and “it takes two to tango,” they might be “left in the dark” by southern idioms like “lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut,” “I’m as busy as a one-legged cat in a sandbox,” and “Grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater,” so I try to avoid them by writing “I’m very depressed,” “I’m extremely busy,” and “I’m ecstatic.” Or, at least something along those lines.
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