Thursday, September 15, 2011

How I shot myself in the foot.

       A funny thing happened on the way home from seeing Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris". I couldn't wait to re-read something by Hemingway. I found a copy of "The Sun Also Rises", which turned out to be perfect.

       Soon I found myself trying to write like Hemingway. Short, declarative sentences, subject and predicate. I tried to write with gritty language, and long descriptions of the landscape. I tried everything but the bullfights; it was always too hard to tie them in with the ads I was doing.

       I finally had to give up writing like I was at a dark little bar in Cuba, but once again I realized how important "tone" is.

       When an ad writer makes up her mind to write, the decision about tone of voice is always in the room. She has to decide. Should it be friendly, formal, conversational, or introductory? Confident, questioning, informative or reassuring? Subtle or frank? Stern or funny or with just a knowing smile in the voice?

       There are tones we hate (like those demolition derby and tractor-pull commercials), and those we feel like curling up with (like Kraft and Hallmark). There are voices we recognize (Garfield the cat), voices we trust (Donald Sutherland), and the announcery voices that sound like God.

       The wrong tone of voice can wreck a commercial, and it can wreck an otherwise good print ad or even a brochure.

       When I write, my "default voice" (when nothing more specific, like Dracula or Patton, comes to mind) is a kind of jaunty, conversational tone. My first drafts are usually that way, and then I'll re-write everything if it doesn't sound right when I read it aloud.

        You have to give your tone of voice some thought. An educator I know can write five words and have me laughing out loud. A ballerina I know recently emailed me and there was a tear welling up before I got through her second sentence.

         I'm no Hemingway, as I've just proven. But when I ask you to pay attention to the tone of voice in your writing, I am trying to be very earnest.

         (Sorry about that. Wrong tone.)

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