The late Christopher Hitchens was a devastatingly brilliant man of letters who wrote widely, and fiercely, on myriad topics, becoming more widely known in recent years as one of the “New Atheists,” along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for his no-holds-barred attacks on religion, even claiming that religion “poisons everything.”
I recently picked up his last book, Mortality (Twelve, 2012), which was published posthumously after his death in 2011. I did this not because I wanted to read his thoughts on death – there aren’t many for a virulent atheist like him – but because he was a great writer. Hitchens was also a gifted speaker and debater, always ready to employ his voice in debate and lively conversation. This writing advice he offers combines these two things, voice and writing, as he so impressively did throughout his life:
“To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition out loud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better into. If something is worth hearing or listening to it’s very probably worth reading. So, above all: Find your own voice” (50).
So whether you want to become a professional writer or simply write better and more effective e-mails, have you ever thought much about developing your “voice”? And how often do you have others read your work, not to mention reading it yourself?
In his helpful book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008), Roy Peter Clark offers these “tricks” for writers, though they can be used by anyone who wants to improve their writing. Do you ever do any of these?
- Read to listen to the voice of the writer.
- Read the newspaper in search of underdeveloped story ideas.
- Read online to experience a variety of new storytelling forms.
- Read entire books when they compel you; but also taste bits of books.
- In choosing what to read, be directed less by the advice of others and more by your writing compass.
- Sample – for free – a wide selection of current magazines in bookstores that serve coffee.
- Read on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics, and photography.
- Read with a pen nearby. Write in the margins. Talk back to the author. Mark interesting passages. Ask questions of the text.