If you listen closely, a lot of people say “uh” or “um” while they’re talking. It’s a normal hesitation, born from our tendency to speak before we’ve fully formed what we want to say. In fact, not only that—but we repeat ourselves a lot. Not necessarily because we feel the need to reiterate our words, but usually both happen because we’re trying to gather our thoughts together enough to finish what we’re saying.
Hold that thought for a moment.
A while ago, I don’t remember when, exactly, but it probably started around mid 2013-ish, I started having issues with my writing. Something about my writing style felt off, but I had no idea what it was. A friend offered to critique my novel to help me out, but that didn’t end up panning out, I think probably because of school and stuff. (Though, I very much appreciated that friend offering to help, and I hope he realizes that.) Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I needed to just keep going and not worry about what was off.
After all, does the writing style worry so much in draft one? At that point in time, I didn’t even have a finished first draft to work on, so my concentration needed to be on finishing something, not micro-editing it, yeah? So I kept going.
Obviously, it’s been a while since 2013. My plan worked. I kept writing, and late last year, I finished a project. I’m still not at the point where I can micro-edit—I’m still barely past two-thirds of the way through draft two, and I know draft three will still have lots of macro-edits, thanks to random plot twists and disobedient characters that made draft two still not totally coherent (but still better than draft one). However, since that time, my writing style has changed and I feel more confident about it.
In fact, I daresay, I like my voice. Not to say I can’t stand for improvements, but I feel like I have a good basis. What changed?
First of all, I had more experience. Funny what experience can do and how it can change things, even if it’s just the tiny bit that I had.
But what I want to focus on here is—confidence.
I started sounding more confident.
Now, you remember how we were talking about how people naturally hesitate and repeat themselves? Somewhere along the lines, I noticed this, and I started to insert it into my writing, thinking that if I did so, then I’d make my characters’ speech sound more realistic.
Simultaneously, I did another thing. For a writer and an artist, I suck at noticing things. I also am really horrible at picking out people’s intentions. So many times somebody’s said something, and then I found out they actually meant something different than what they said, and, I honestly had no idea until they told me. Unless it was sarcasm. Don’t ask me why, but I can pick up sarcasm, but nothing else of that sort. (And my family likes to use straight-faced sarcasm. Not easy to do or to pick up on, believe me. But I’m not half bad at it.)
As a result of that, when I’d write, I’d sometimes wonder if I would fail to pick up on things in my own writing. For example, I’d have a character, and I’d be pretty sure she was fierce, but… then I’d wonder, what if I was writing it wrong or misunderstanding my own writing, and she was actually just…cruel? So what I did was instead of writing “fierce”, instead I’d find a way to not use the word at all, or I’d stick an adverb in front of it, and say something like “kind of fierce”. Then, if she wasn’t fierce, I wouldn’t really be wrong, because I said “kind of fierce” not “fierce“.
It really doesn’t work that way. For example:
“It’s kind of hot out here.”
“It is not. It’s actually really nice.”
“I said ‘kind of’ hot.”
“No, it isn’t hot at all! Feel this breeze; its really nice.”
I have conversations like this with my younger brothers. It really doesn’t work the way they intend it to—often, it’s just annoying. And it makes you sound really hesitant.
Now listen to this:
“She—she isn’t here… I think she’s, uh, back at the hotel.”
“She isn’t here; she’s back at the hotel.”
I did both of these things. And the result was that my writing sounded very, very hesitant and unsure of itself. Of course it sounded off! I might as well have been a six year old talking about astrophysics. Except that that six year old would have still sounded more confident than me. (Little kids have this strange way of sounding as if they knew exactly what they’re talking about, even when they clearly don’t.)
Do I still do these things? Yes. I can’t say I’m past saying “I think” and “kind of” everywhere, but I’m more aware of it, and I’m fixing it. And I still have plenty of “uh”s and “um”s in my writing, but only where I want a character to sound hesitant. The above examples—that top one isn’t wrong. That could be a perfectly fine piece of dialogue. But it’d be in a very different scene than the second one, wouldn’t it?
Hesitation is a tool, to be used like any other emotion. But it can be used wrongly or in the wrong situations. Or just plain overused. And what’s the result of sounding hesitant all the time?
Well, apparently, your writing will sound off.
But you’ll also feel less confident. Are you sure you know what you’re talking about? Are you sure that’s what happened? Are you sure it wasn’t this, instead?
You are the writer. You are putting the words on the page. You know what happened for sure. Even if you feel like your characters are in control of you, you still know what’s going on. Your job is to communicate this story from the lives of your characters’, and into the imaginations of your readers. How can you do that if you sound hesitant?
No. Be confident. She is at the hotel. The weather is pleasant. There is a nice breeze.
Your readers will believe you when you tell them this. They will not believe you when you tack an “I think” onto the end.