Sometimes, I read things that feel as though they were written by computers. Soulless, trite, nearly meaning-free bits of text that leave me no more edified, amused, or moved than I was before I read them.
Occasionally, I am also lucky enough to read pieces of writing that evoke vibrant images and feelings within me as I take them in and process them. No matter the topic, if the writer has done his or her job properly, that’s what happens. Those pieces of writing stay with me for days, weeks, even years.
Good writing should contain your hallmarks. It should use a bunch of your favourite words and phrases. If, when speaking, you tend to overuse the word “actually” or “indeed” or “insofar,” then that should show up in your written work. The words and phrasings you use, the comparisons you make – those are your fingerprints on your writing. It’s not about talking about yourself or using your own experiences as examples – it’s just about using your own vocabulary and drawing on your data bank of ideas and memories. Research is good; in fact, it’s essential for great writing. But it needs to be expertly blended into the writing, along with dashes of your personality, wit, and background.
When I read something that I find boring, it’s generally for one of two reasons. First, the topic does not interest me, but that’s no fault of the writer’s. Second, the words themselves contain none of the writer’s quirks and foibles; there’s no spark, no personality, no what the hell…? moments. It’s all words I’ve read before, in familiar combinations, devoid of insight or true meaning. George Orwell expressed the concern, in his classic-for-a-reason 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, that “…prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
When you put yourself into your writing, that stuff that Orwell’s talking about doesn’t happen. It can be tempting to adopt a writing style that you think sounds eloquent, or wise, or down-to-earth, or whatever it is you’re trying to convey, but if it’s done artificially (using the passive voice, or lots of long words when shorter ones would work as well) then the effort starts to overshadow the meaning. It becomes a very beautiful but somewhat tasteless cake. Throw in a little of your favourite spice, though, and suddenly it’s your signature dish.
I like to reread that Orwell essay once every couple of years to remind me to put together words and thoughts in my own honest and personal way. It’s not about being deliberately “unique” but rather about allowing the images in my mind, the things I love, and the experiences I’ve had to inform the words I use, instead of using pre-built phrases and clichés. Leave a little dusting of your personality in everything you write, and it will ring true.