Writing like you talk

aside2When reading a professional author’s discussion thread, I noted that more than one person asserted the trick to creating a unique writer’s voice was “writing like you talk.” There is some truth to this. I tend to understate if I don’t know the quantity, (I longed to quote the precise percent of people rather than writing “more than one”), use long complex sentences, and employ subtle sarcasm. These characteristics keep popping up in my speech and writing. However, I meander more when talking, I trail off leaving sentences unfinished, and I repeat myself… a lot. You really do not want to read an article or book written like I talk.

However, I have noticed that some people, who find public speaking a breeze, do seem to write like they talk. When discussing a book written in this manner by a prominent news commentator, I heard an interesting observation. The other person said, “You can really hear him speaking as you read it, and this really slows you down.” Now, I prefer reading to listening to a recorded video because I can read about three times faster than I can listen (this is average for most people.) This led me to consider the complications of writing like you speak.

Most people tend to be more dramatic and less accurate when speaking. This allows them to be heard over competing voices. Like me, they repeat themselves frequently. They also fill their speech with meaningless phrases, such as “when you think about things,” because they are actually thinking about things as they are speaking. One of the biggest drawbacks to writing  in this manner is the increased word count for the amount of content. This may be at the root of my friend’s perception that “this really slows you down” when reading.

But another cause for the decrease in speed is the excessive use of “verbal jargon.” These  current catch phrases and regional interjections set the tone for the text, but contribute little or nothing to the meaning. Now don’t get me wrong; tone is necessary in writing. Much of how we interpret what people say is by listening to their tone of voice. But there is no audible tone in writing. Writing requires greater clarity and economy of words to achieve the same impact as spoken words.Write like you speak, with lots of verbal jargon, and you may be understood by your neighbor today, but remove the reader a few decades, a few thousands miles, or a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, and reading what you have written becomes hard work.

Occasionally, I enjoy reading books by authors who write in the vernacular, but I prefer to reading them in small doses.  There is a reason that Mark Twain’s novels were popular with readers of his day. They were published as serial installments in magazines. However, students today struggle through his work (especially when he tried to imitate Old English speech, such as in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

So when you decide to write like you speak, recall when you sat in a conversation as the other person droned on assuming their choice of words made them sound cutting edge or quaint. Then, go back and edit your work until it flows and is more easily read. People may pay attention when you speak. After all that is polite and they expect you to listen to what they say, too. However, reading is a one way conversation and you’ll never know if they simply stopped reading your book.

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Characters and cohorts

group 2011 (1)In fiction most protagonists like most people are not complete loners. Interactions with their cohorts make up a good portion of novels, so creating these peers takes a bit of thought. What enables a real-life group to be innovative in business also makes for interesting interplay between the main character and their group.  A peek inside of what helps real work groups to collaborate and solve problems maybe the key to creating the cohort that complements the unforgettable protagonist.

With all the current emphasis on collaborative thinking and collective knowledge in the workplace, you might assume assembling a large group of properly motivated people could solve almost any problem. You don’t really believe this do you? The larger the group is, the less each person is inclined to contribute. According to Fortune Magazine 4 to 5 is the magic number. [[1] Wharton Business School uses 5 to 6. Get beyond this and you will have social loafing, members who fail to contribute much or are kept from contributions due to the self-enforced conformity of large groups [2]. Most people will then tend to follow the loudest voice that supports the status quo. Of course maintaining status quo not only limits creativity. It also makes a boring plot line.

The ideal size of the team depends on its goal, but teams larger than eight people fail to function efficiently.  [2] In the same manner, a large number of well drawn auxiliary characters dilute attention to the struggles and triumphs of the main character. And they will confuse the readers to boot. Students studying literature keep lists of characters when reading epic novels to make enjoyment easier; not all readers are willing to do that.

In real situations, diverse groups are smarter and better at problem solving. This is particularly noticeable in the case of gender and ethnic diversity. Add females to a formerly all male group (and vice versa) and the collaborative IQ rises.[3] Ethnic differences make viewpoint differences more acceptable because, oddly enough, people become more upset when a view that conflicts with theirs is proposed by someone that looks and acts like them, rather than someone obviously different.[2]

This kind of attitude occurs in the fictional world also. Consider the difference between a foil and a doppelganger. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is tall, thin, and an impractical idealist, while his Sancho Panza, is short, fat and a realist. These differences in temperaments and appearance not only play the main character off of his side kick, but provide a range of resources so that they can assisting in helping each other get out of trouble.

However, the when the main character has an unnatural twin, a person who appears the same physically but is on the other side of the behavioral spectrum, the outcome is virtually bound to be tragic. It doesn’t matter whether the twin is an actual human, as in the Charles Dicken’s “Tale of Two Cities, a mythical doppelganger, as in Edgar Allen Poe’s “William Wilson,” or simply an illusion as in Fyodor Dotoevsky’s “The Double.” One or both of the identical appearing people are almost always doomed to die.

When you think about it perhaps it would help people doing research on successful work group successful to take a peek into successful main characters and their cohorts.

 [1] Useem, Jerry.  “How to Build a Great Team” Fortune  Magazine, June 1, 2006 
[2] “Is Your Team Too Big? Too Small? What’s the Right Number?”Knowledge@Wharton. Jun 14, 2006
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When characters confuse

teddy 029Whether or not you are fond of the recent spate of police detective dramas, you are probably familiar with a few of the psychological terms they throw around, such as calling card, MO, and motive.  These are not just reserved for suspects in murder mysteries.  Fictional characters take on their own personalities when you remember to consider each of these features. Paying attention to these aspects  doesn’t make characters predictable (otherwise criminals would be easier to catch) but does make them less confusing.

The calling card is a quirky behavior, an eccentric ritual that goes beyond what is needed.  This  is also called the signature aspect in criminology because it comparatively unique. It provides an insight into motive and is derived from a deep seated psychological need.  (Major characters should also have unfulfilled psychological needs unless they are robots.) For example, a woman who had to grow up too fast in a distressing family situation may show a propensity for collecting stuffed teddy bears in an attempt to regain a lost childhood. Another from a similar background  may prefer clothes with child-like frills. Signature behavior develops uniquely for each person based on personality, motive and MO. It may increase or decrease but doesn’t really change.

MO or Modus operandi is Latin for method of operation. This is a character’s preferred way of interacting with others.  Consider two different teenage boys in their attempts to attract teenage girls. One may decide  a show of physical strength, such as pelting a rival with a football, is the way to gain attention from the fairer sex. The other, who uses his wit may  point out the disproportional number of felons in the NFL after the pelting incident.  MO is also the preferred method for attempting to reach a goal. It is not fixed, but based on learned behavior and changes over time as the character gains confidence through experience  (or descends into psychosis due to stress).  However, there has to be a definite reason, a point in the plot that you can put your finger on, that causes the shift in MO.

Finally we come to motive. We may never understand why real people do what they do, but we expect to be able to detect motives in fiction. The reasons that drive characters to act may be initially hidden but should be revealed as the story progresses. A character’s motives can be transformed but this calls for an event with much more impact than needed for developing a new MO. Just like the calling card, internal motivation tends to remain constant, unless the character goes through brain altering surgery or some other earth-shaking experience.  The calling card can provide a window into the character’s motivation if you are subtle about connecting the two. Readers often enjoy uncovering this on their own. After all a major point of creating the story is for the reader’s enjoyment.

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When characters collide

Face_Off copy
Consider the possible basic conflicts in fiction:  man against environment, man against man, man against society, and man against self.  In most plots the conflicts are between people.  Even in Robinson Caruso and Castaway, tales of man surviving in isolation, the fact that the protagonist  learned to survive  on his own didn’t bring the story to an end.  The goal was to get back to people, and in both stories contact with people brought new conflicts.

What causes the conflict between fictional characters is often simple. Typically character A and character B want the same thing, but they don’t want to share. This love triangle plot is played over and over again with competition not necessarily for the affection of a person but  for a coveted prize, a position of power, or a piece of land handed down by the family. However, there needs to be another conflict, one of personality which keeps the two characters from compromising to work out this difficulty.

I am sure you have seen personality conflicts played out in real life before.  One person is emotional, but sensitive and the other logical, but cold. One person is quick to take offense when another offers criticism, but the critique is meant to point out a problem that really does exist.  A subtle war starts because one person perceives that another is getting the special privileges, which very well maybe true because people who treat others equitably are very rare. So a collision of characters can often be drawn from real life.

In fiction authors often play heavy favorites with characters, creating heroes with admirable qualities and villains that are evil simply because they are.  However, intriguing antagonists have real personalities that cause them to want to block the hero from reaching the goal. The personality conflict in which neither one is the shining knight or the dragon makes the conflict more compelling.

Creating memorable conflict between characters requires also requires an understanding of modus operandi.  MOs don’t just belong to criminals. They are the identifying methods that characters use to get what they want.  If two clashing characters want the same thing, how they go about obtaining it separates them.  This gives clues into the internal motivations so authors do not have to blatantly describe characters as “good” or “bad.” Modeling characters on real personality conflicts results in heroes and villains whose life like immediacy draws the interest of real readers.

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What makes a character, a character?

tape_warrior cRecently I was following a thread of writers discussing how to find names that make characters memorable.  Honestly I believe that writers should be looking at the reverse situation.  It is the skillful creation of a character whose strengths and weaknesses  strike a chord of truth in the reader that make the character’s name memorable. Names like Scarlet, Sherlock, Romeo and Ulysses invoke images of their fictional counterparts.

People seek out empathetic protagonists when they read. These characters are constructed so that people can relate to them and  even feel an emotional connection with them. One critical thing to remember is not everybody will identify with the same kind of character, which is fortunate because I would hate to be reading about the same person over and over again. It’s fairly clear that the ideal fictional character is a mix of strengths and weakness  – neither perfect or perfectly rotten – but it’s not as clear how to create a mix that enables people to empathize with a character.

If your characters care about no one else, readers probably will not care about them. In  a recent study done at Princeton University loyalty and dependability were high on the positive characteristics that both men and women should exhibit.  But not surprisingly most of the desirable traits for males and females differed.  When I compared those listed for females and males I found the following items high on both the studies done with the general population and college student:

Desirable females traits                                Desirable male traits 
friendly                                                                      high self-esteem
cheerful                                                                      strong personality
attention to appearance (attractive)                  athletic
warm & kind                                                            self reliant
sensitive                                                                    ambitious


Most people studied were fairly tolerant of people showing a trait associated with the opposite gender as long as it was positive. But the male traits that were less acceptable were seen as downright objectionable in a female, and vice versa. So be careful with the faults that round out your hero and/or heroine to make them more real.  Readers are more likely to reject a male character that has negative traits connected with females and more likely to condemn a female exhibiting typically male faults. So what did the researchers find as the most undesirable traits?

Most undesirable females traits          Most undesirable males traits                    
stubborn                                                               shy
controlling                                                           moody
cynical                                                                  naive
promiscuous                                                       melodramatic
self-righteous                                                      gullible
arrogant                                                              weak


Now flip these around and apply them to the other gender, and most people will not judge them nearly as harshly.  There exists a sprinkling of protagonists that do have these negative traits in well known books. You may be even be able to name a few. The key is to have the protagonist become aware of the fault and willing change, unless you want a tragic ending (like that of the moody Heathcliff) or intend to show satire (as with the naive Candide). However, the challenge remains of making characters with these faults appeal to a wider audience.

Prentice, D.A, and Carranza, E. (2002) What Women and Men Should Be, Shouldn’t Be, Are Allowed to Be and Don’t Have to Be: The Contents of Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 269-281. Blackwell Publishing, USA
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What makes a classic, a classic?

AIC copyWhen a person refers to classic sculpture or architecture, you automatically assume it is the style derived from classic Greek art, the style of art associated with a small Mediterranean peninsula beginning about 500 B.C. and ending 323 B.C., at the death of Alexander the Great. There are other civilizations with other classic periods, blooms in culture that led to their height of artistic expression. Why do we assume that the culture is automatically Greek when it is not identified?  One clue is the ending date, the death of the Alexander the Great, who adopted this artistic style and spread it through his conquests to lands of other more ancient empires.  When the Romans took over this vast area ruled by the descendants of his Greek generals, they were too busy building roads and outposts to maintain a huge empire to come up with a unique artistic style.

Fast forward several hundred years and you have Europeans during the renaissance rediscovering this “classic” style. But the renaissance wasn’t just about architecture and sculpture. It was also about literature, a period in which a creativity would occur in writing. So what makes classic literature classic? Largely it’s acceptance by professors at major universities.  One of these, Harold Bloom of Yale University, is known for his book about books, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages . This discussion of classic books has  become surprisingly popular.  Bloom credits William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry with giving rise to the bloom of writing that continued to inspire the great works of European literature.

Most students do not realize that Shakespeare was not an “academic” a person who wrote for other highly educated people, but rather a producer of popular entertainment. Common people paid a small amount to go stand for hours and watch his plays just like teenagers crowd to the theater today. Also many students also do not realize that Shakespeare’s plays contain quite a bit of suggestive language. As one student said, If you don’t understand a particular phrase in a Shakespearean play, it is probably R-rated. However, the fact that his work has lasted so long is an indication of its general appeal and quality. It also an indication of Shakespeare’s esteem by the other actors who contributed to getting his work published.

However, what seems to contribute the most to being considered a classic is to be work produced in a growing power, a nation which exchanges its culture for wealth from other nations to enrich its treasuries. It helped that Shakespeare started writing in the Elizabethan period, the dawn of Britain as an empire. It seems as if the ego of the nation is as important as the worth of individual work when identifying creative periods in art and literature.

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Letting students read what they want?

reading2Reading literature in education may be on the way out. It is one of the many previous foundational skills that have been thrown aside to find a place for all the additional science, math and technology that a “competitive” county in the world economy. In a recent discussion with English teachers I found many who thought there was no problem with exposing secondary students to works written only in the last fifty years or less. Some preferred an even more recent time frame and choose nonfiction or new popular novels to give students books that they found easier to read, those that  didn’t require much interpretation because the author basically told the story.

So what will we lose when we no longer require students to read works that are not as easily read but have with stood the test of time? Perhaps we will be robbing students of a chance to increase empathy and social skills. Being able to grasp the mental state of other people is valuable for functioning in society. Researchers and scientists do not know a lot about what contributes to this skill. However, two recent studies show that reading fiction, and in particular literary fiction, increases it.

A study by Mar and Oatley (2010)  from York University found that individual who choose to read fiction often (no division was made between literature and popular fiction) were more able to empathize with others and understand the world from their perspective.[1] A more recent study by Kidd and Castano (2013) indicates that reading literary fiction at least temporarily increase people’s ability to understand that others have different beliefs, values, goals and desires than they do.[2]

Kidd and Castano , researchers from the New School for Social Research, conducted experiments to test participant’s accuracy in identifying the emotions of others after they had been reading popular fiction, non-fiction, literary texts or nothing at all. They found those that had read literary texts were able to accurately identify the emotions than those who had been reading popular fiction or non-fiction.

So what exactly is the difference between popular fiction and literature?

According to the literary theory put forward by Roland Barthe fictional text is divided into two types. He describes “readerly” text as those in which the reader is mostly passive, and does not have to make much effort to receiving the text. This type of text is largely entertaining and the author tells you what you are experiencing. On the other hand “writerly” text require that the reader engage with the writer. This text requires greater effort to read and comprehend the codes of meaning.[3]

You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.[4]

Emanuele Castano

We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way.[5]

David Comer Kidd

Of course there is not a rigid line of demarcation between the two.  However, literature is usually marked by an in depth focus on characters inner feelings and thoughts. Also, characters tend not to remain static so the reader has to make a effort, and construct their own frame of reference. This is something students may not want to do, but it has its benefit.


[1] Paul, A. M. “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer” Time. June 03, 2013
[2] Kidd, D.C. and Emanuele C., “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” Science 18 October 2013 Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 377-380, Published Online October 3 2013
[3] Barthe, R. The Pleasure of the Text. Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in French as Le Plaisir du texte 1973 by Editions du Seuil, Paris
[4] Greenfieldboyce, N. “Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction” NPR. October 04, 2013 4:24 PM ET
[5] Bury, L.  “Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds”  The Guardian. Tuesday 8 October 2013 03.00 EDT


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Delusion and Imagery

NY toll road (1) _a copyImagery is one of the harder to pinpoint concepts in poetry. What exactly is the difference between describing something in poetry and creating imagery?  This concept is not always easy to explain.  So I looked at what some experts in the fields of communication and language said about imagery.

Marshall McLuhan, a modern philosopher well known for his communication and media theories, was particularly in the application of these theories. He wrote extensively on how marketing and advertisement appeals to people. He stepped into the realm of politics to comment:

Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and cognitive scientist, who is known for his political involvement looked at McLuhan’s area of expertise, how the public perceives advertisements. According to Chomsky:

Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information. You expect to see delusion and imagery.

There is a similar theme running through both of these quotes, the idea that imagery provides more than actually exists in the object or person being described.  The literary device of imagery can be defined as using words to create a mental picture. However, the mental picture is not simply what exists, but what exists at a more intense level.  A simple cookie dipped in tea takes on a taste, texture and color that make it magically memorable, or an ordinary machine become monstrously frightening.  In a way imagery is description on steroids.

Some of the techniques that move imagery to this level comparisons known as similes and metaphors.  Similes typically deal with more superficial appearances (the sky is gray like slate), while metaphors deal with deeper structural similarities (the sky is an ocean of air)  and can be extended into complex extended metaphors. However in each case the writer is adding nuances to the description that are beyond simply what is observed. Imagery adds connotations which builds another level of perception and results something being more appealing or distasteful.

In the end what reader of a poem desires is not simply to feel like they are present with the author but able to see the intangibles, the feelings, desires and very beliefs that drive the words on the written page. Remember the imagery in commercials: the man standing stalwart in front of flapping flag sells stability not the candidate, and the car rushing down the open road sells freedom, rather than a brand of automobile. People do  not want poetry to show them reality, but something beyond it.

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What makes poetry, poetry?

Barbara_Fritchie_House 2As a young child I assumed poetry must rhyme.  Meter was beyond my comprehension. It was only that constant repetition of ending sounds that mattered. In fifth grade, the teacher encouraged us all to enter a poetry recitation contest.  The selection had to be memorized.  In a conscious attempt to be an over achiever, I choose a poem longer than any other student, a ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier called Barbara Fritchie.

In what seemed to be a monumental task, I spent the next week committing to memory the story of an old Quaker woman confronting Stonewall Jackson as he marched into Frederick, Maryland.  I didn’t care much about the history behind the poem, but I loved chanting the neat rhyming couplets. Each ended on a single syllable accented word so I could really punch out those rhymes.

However, I did have a bit of a quandary what to do about the couplet that read:

” All day long that free flag tost

Over the heads of the rebel host.”

Should I pronounce the end of the first line as “tossed” indicating the flag flapped in the wind, or force the rhyme?  If I said “toast” the poor listeners might think the flag was performing a ritual honor or baking in the sun.  In the end meaning won out I pronounce the Whittier’s made up word as “tossed.”

This was not a traditional competitive contest with a few winners. Rather it was a blatant attempt to foist a little culture on grader schoolers. The judges had a criteria for excellent, good and fair. Everyone received a ribbon.  On the day of the contest I managed to rattle of the entire ballad without a single error. Unfortunately for me, everyone else that participated in my class brought home a blue ribbon for excellent recitation, while I was given the lowest level, a white.

I entered the kitchen mournful, showing my feeble white ribbons and declaring I would never enter a contest that required speaking again. My mother dismissed the judge’s decision by saying, “It was a sing-song poem. Next year, choose one that doesn’t rhyme. You’ll do better.”  I hadn’t realized that reciting tightly rhymed poetry with its sometimes awkward syntax was harder that reading blank verse.

Later, in high school English class, when we were given assignments to write poetry, I asked about writing blank verse and the teachers were generally okay with it. The other students thought I was cheating, writing poetry without having the complication of making it rhyme.  In this day much of the published poetry is free verse, which has follows neither the conventions of a rhyming or regular meter. This departure from traditional poetry leaves many with the question: What makes poetry, poetry?

The basic answer is repetition.  When I write prose I search for synonyms so I am not always repeating the same words. Early on my mother pointed out that repeating the same words was the sign of a very amateurish writer. I also vary the syntax. Using both short direct sentences and longer ones with subjective clauses improves the flow.  Free verse breaks all these conventions of “good” writing by using intentional repetition. It may not be the repeated end sounds of rhyme, but the other sounds such as alliteration, assonance and consonance. Similar words, phrases and parallel construction are used over and over again. The challenge with free verse is creating a new structure, not an already established poetic form and repeating it so the new form has a recognizable pattern, a pattern with enough variation to keep it interesting.

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, said writing free verse was “‘like playing tennis without a net.'”(1) This changes the game, but it can be done. One of my students said poetry was expressing his ideas indirectly. He liked writing it because he could say things that he wanted to without letting people know precisely who and what he was discussing. That is not necessarily what makes poetry, poetry.  But it is part of what makes poetry good.

Photo -By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Ellman, Richard and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Second Edition. New York: Norton, 1988.
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640px-MtRushmore_GW_closeAfter watching a fifth grader standing confident before a class full of peers and parents to deliver a poised speech on Tennessee, I got to watch my own son mumble through a presentation on Maryland. Now, his was actually more organized, including economy, geography, major cities, and educational institutions that he had gleaned from an atlas of the United States and the Internet. These comprehensive details were missing from the lively overview sprinkled with “places I visited” presentation made by the more poised student. If the presentations had been written, his would have been considered superior and the teacher did notice.

Years later when developing a technical training program, a coworker with years of experience in leadership development confided to me that he really didn’t feel comfortable with technology. Most of the leaders he had dealt with tended towards the inspirational, big picture persona. They like to lead people, and leave the details to others. So they didn’t really comprehend how to find trends in data through crunching numbers, or the use the technology available for planning and scoping out possible courses of action.

What do these two vignettes have in common? Use of technology is changing society, education, work and who we consider to be leaders. If you paid attention, you may have noticed the rise in many tech companies was engineered by a pair, the vocal spokesman and the less noticeable creative “brain” – one to inspire people, the other to invent things that actually worked.  In the past when people shared ideas (and source codes) freely over the Internet, some vocal promoters had a wealth of new products/ideas to choose from without working with the geek who could pull all the details together. We probably never will learn the real inventor in many cases.

But leadership is changing, a lot of people tell you (or sell you) their idea in the new practice of leadership coaching. It is a rising business in which people try to teach social skill to the techies who seem to lack them, or encourage the confident speaker that he really does understand things when he doesn’t know what to do with pile of data. We may soon rethink who is good at doing what based on a whole new criteria, especially our leaders.

Photo by Scott Catron (CC by 2.5)
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