How Dominic Cummings can affect your writing
Updated: May 27, 2020
Wrong side of the law? Dominic Cummings hits the news. Photo: The Times
"I CAN REALLY HEAR YOUR VOICE when you write," a client said to me recently. She’s not the first. If you’ve heard my Geordie accent, you may be wondering whether that’s a good thing. But I’m sure it was meant as a compliment.
"How do you do that?" she then asked.
"Erm, I’m not sure," I replied.
But I thought about it because she and others want to know how. Maybe not for writing a formal piece if they happen to be an informal person, or vice versa. But people do tend to want to sound like themselves for their own blogs, for example.
They also want to know how they can turn it off when it’s not appropriate.
So, this is what I came up with when I thought about it.
Hello! Hello! Who’s speaking?
First, and fairly obviously, to sound like yourself when you write, simply think about the way you talk. We’ve all been told to write about what we know. Maybe we should be told to write as we sound.
Read whatever you’ve written out loud. Imagine a mate is standing in front of you. Does the imaginary mate listen intently before continuing the conversation without batting an eyelid? Or does she say, "are you well, you absolute freak?" If it’s the latter, your writing doesn’t sound like you.
Watch your words
Think about the words you use. Most of us have some go-to words and phrases we pepper our conversations with. It therefore makes sense to pepper your writing with some of the same words and phrases.
Be mindful with this. Your friends may understand your meaning. But other members of your audience may be left scratching their heads by the way you use certain words.
Take 'canny'. People in the North East of England use the word 'canny' a lot. Or a canny bit, as they're apt to say. The trouble is, it has about 300 connotations (Geordies are also prone to exaggerate). 'Canny', for Novocastrians, generally means ‘good’. Saying ‘he’s a canny lad’ is equivalent to saying ‘he’s good’ or ‘he’s a nice person’. ‘Gan canny’, meanwhile, means something like ‘go carefully’ or ‘watch what you’re doing’. It can also mean ‘quite’. So, to say something is ‘canny good’ can mean the same as ‘quite good’. Nobody in Newcastle thinks ‘canny good’ is a tautology, so I’d just avoid the subject if I were you!
And we should remember that ‘canny’ in Scotland is used differently. It has the same ‘careful’ connotation as it does in Newcastle. But the careful connotation is more like 'shrewd', or 'tight', when it comes to money (almost always in a derogatory way).
But the way you express yourself when you write is probably the most important way of delivering a message that sounds like you. By this I mean not just your choice of words, but the way you put them together.
For example, the following three lines convey much the same thing. But the way they’re expressed would lead the reader to think, ah yes, I can really hear such-and-such’s voice here:
‘Many consider Dominic Cummings flouted government guidelines when he drove to Durham during lockdown.’
‘Many senior politicians agree with the public view that Dominic Cummings’ decision was hypocritical.’
‘Dominic Cummings is an arrogant pr***.’
You don’t need to be a genius to work out which ones you would use in a formal context and which you may reserve for your own blog. The essential message, in light of this week’s most controversial news story, is similar in each. It’s simply expressed differently.
Passive- and active voice
Even subtle changes make a difference. The way words are arranged in a sentence can help readers identify the writer, or let them ‘hear’ the writer’s voice. Consider the following two sentences:
‘An error of judgement was made by the senior advisor.’
‘Dominic Cummings made an error of judgement.’
If you tend to use passive voice your readers will recognise your style in the first sentence. If you tend to use active voice, then the second sentence is more ‘you’.
There’s also perspective to consider:
‘Dominic Cummings must have known he was ignoring government guidance when he drove 260 miles to Durham.’
‘It may have crossed Dominic Cummings’ mind that he was breaching government guidance when he drove to his parents in Durham.’
The blame game
In terms of meaning, there is little difference between the two sentences above. But the first is more accusatory: it puts the blame squarely on the government advisor, whereas the second merely questions his decision-making.
These are at least some of the things that make your writing quintessentially you. I’d love to hear from you if you have anything to add, or even if you disagree with what I’ve said or the way I’ve said it.
Writing in a way that resembles your personality will help you build your personal brand. Which must be a good thing if you want to stand out against your competitors.