In the writing business, we often speak of a writer’s voice. This is a complex topic, but it’s simpler for nonfiction writers. Your voice is your personality on paper.
Writers are often told “write as you speak,” but that is an oversimplification. What we mean when we say that is that you ought not to reach beyond yourself for some lofty “writerly” style. A sure way to get yourself into trouble is using words outside your normal vocabulary or attempting elaborate Faulknerian sentence structures.
There’s a scene in the movie The Rocketeer in which a film director, coaching a wooden actress, says, “Acting…is acting…as if you’re not acting.”
In other words, be natural. In the same way, writing is writing as if you’re not writing.
Nevertheless, your writing should not be your verbatim speech, either. Our speech is often filled with redundancies like “he called me at three a.m. in the morning” and tautologies like “I’m angry with her because she really ticked me off.” These need to be excised from our writing, along with excessive wordiness. For example, in a meeting years ago, a colleague said “we want to make sure everyone receives all the resources they require in order to be successful.”
My editor replied, “You want to give everyone what they need to succeed.” (She did apologize for editing him out loud.)
My point is, there’s a difference between eloquence and wordiness. The latter needs to be pared away from your writing so the former can shine.
How do you tell the difference?
As with anything else, practice. Read great writing and analyze how it’s done. Comb through your own writing to see what can be done away with and what can be illuminated.
I said fiction is different. That’s because the voice in fiction will depend upon the viewpoint character as much as upon the author. More on that next time.