in writing, some of the most obvious and helpful tips can also be some of the most under-appreciated. take, for example, the suggestion for writers to compose in an authentic voice, to let their human feel for language shine through. yet how often do we abandon our own easy gift for words when circumstances require us to write? how often do we let our syntax suddenly stiffen, calcifying into rigid and unnatural blocks of text? why does this happen?
i'm not sure. and i'm not sure i care enough to truly probe the question. what does interest me, though, are the ways we can write with a natural cadence, an organic gait that feels (in the positive sense) conversational.
a helpful way i've found to give my prose the color of conversation is to remember that all writing operates at the level of dialogue--and that's true whether i'm engaging an audience that's public or private, large or small, or (as is so often the case) limited solely to myself.
when i write from this place--from the persona of both Speaker and Listener--i'm reminded to establish exigence--an invaluable rhetorical tool that often gives writing that loose but logical voice. exigence (despite the forbidding name) simply means the "circumstances that necessitate communication"; or, put another way, exigence asks us to invoke the "timing" of our work, the circumstances that make "now" the right moment to hold forth.
writing is meant to be read, which means it's also destined to be performed (in whatever fashion that may take). as result, we should all want our work to feel as readable and honest and syntactically effective as possible. and, as i've hoped to make clear, establishing the exigency for a given article or essay or blog post (or really almost anything?) can help us remember that, while yes we are writing, we are also (in a very real way) speaking--and therefore word choice and sentence patterns must hit the natural beats and bounces of speech.
here are two strong examples of what i mean.
the first is from Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. (note: Marvin Gay's "What's Going On?" plays softly in the background during the feature.)
SIMON: Music is a way many of us mark time in our lives or even of history.
(soundbite of song)
SIMON: Forty years ago today, Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On?" was released. It was sweet, sad and had bite. Without being explicit or obvious, it seemed to sing at the era of marching in the streets and mourning for those who died, both overseas and in the struggle for civil rights at home. The song seemed to catch the wave of history, became a huge hit.
for me, this is perfect. the intro engages the audience in a conversation--and does so by both its exigency ("Forty years ago today...") and its mix of elevated and colloquial expressions.
the second example is from a New York Times Magazine article that i think is destined for many journalists' end-of-year top ten lists. notice how the article's exigency--Derek Jeter's 37th birthday--informs the author's tone and style.