Editing and reading for other people every day, I get to see a wealth of expression. Some is uplifting, some poetic, some gut-wrenching, and some downright silly. In editing to keep in the writer’s authentic voice, I always leave in the quirks, the silliness. It’s the very part that makes that voice authentic, conversational, accessible.
When it comes to my own writing, there have always been words that I swore would never creep in no matter where I travelled or what I read. When I moved to NZ, I solemnly swore to all my London friends that I would retain ‘crisps’ over ‘chips’. Honestly, NZ peeps, ‘hot chips’ is so tautologous I don’t know where to start. Not once would ‘jandals’ pass my lips. Never would ‘dairy’ mean ‘newsagent’.
It was not gonna happen
Those phrases weren’t welcome.
Yet slowly and inevitably, I started living on an ‘Ave’ (avenue, but the ‘nue’ is never uttered). I put on my ‘pants’ (trousers) in the mornings. And I might exclaim ‘far out’ (wow!) if something surprises me. Gah!
It’s understandable when surrounded by it in everyday life, but what about writers who have to express their true voice? When hanging out in other cultures, listening, reading and writing while surrounded by foreign tongues and exoticness, are we really being true to ourselves, or simply soaking up other people’s words?
That question is equally relevant if the place you’re hanging out is digital, not literal.
I mean, if you’re simmering in a world of websites that were written by, for instance, US writers, how do you know you’re maintaining your Australian-ness? If your urge is to write words only the Queen would understand, but you spend most days scrolling Buzzfeed memes, are your words going to end up a bizarre scramble of both?
Editing other Englishes
I get the same when I’m editing. If I’m working with clients who use different Englishes to me, I wonder if I’m picking up or putting in idioms and linguistic quirks that don’t suit the writer’s voice or the audience’s expectations.
I have to be vigilant every day that the intended reader would understand the nuances, accents and regionalisms of what’s being written. And I have to be true to the author of those words.
To make a zillion percent sure I’m doing the client’s voice justice, here are a few ways I’ve made sure my British-with-a-hint-of-Aussie-ness doesn’t sneak into your work:
1 Check, check and triple check the document language
I make sure it’s set to the language of your voice. Sometimes clients will just open Word or a Google Doc and start typing, but often it’ll be set to US English as default instead of UK or Australian. No defaults here! It’s important to sound like you, even if you’re writing for an overseas audience, and especially if you have a personal brand.
2 Speak to you face-to-face on Skype before we start working together
I do this so I can hear what you sound like live (not just on paper). This helps me get in the zone with who you are and what language you’re likely to use. I take extensive notes on your vocabulary, the exact words and phrasing that you speak, style, humour, formality. And I try to not put words in my clients’ mouths by getting you to do most of the talking first.
3 Rely on my background as a patent translation proofreader
Yes, that is as boring and meticulous as it sounds, but I learned a lot. I memorised pages of language preferences so you don’t have to! I know countless equivalents. And I understand the nuances in US versus UK spelling and style. Should you use curb or kerb? Maybe just sidewalk? Is there one ‘l’ in travelling or two? Depends who you ask. I make sure I do.
4 Read and socialise widely in all varieties of English
I’ve gotten very used to switching, but I’ve never reached a point where I don’t notice. I’m highly attuned to language. It’s how I learn. It’s how I think. It’s how I understand and process information. You might be a very visual person. Perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘kinesthetic’, where you learn by getting your hands dirty. These are the ‘doing’ learners. Well, my world is words. I always notice the words people use, which is why I’ll never take a reference to a ‘nappy’ for granted, because what if your readers call it a ‘diaper’? A ‘schooner’ will never go unnoticed, because where I come from we drink ‘pints’.
It’s oh-so important that you sound like you
And it’s oh-so important that I sound like me. Just not at the same time in the same piece of writing.
My life and travels are reflected in the words I use, the way I speak and even the pages I write. Yet they absolutely mustn’t show up when editing. There, my own language must be invisible.
I have learned to separate my words from my work, while appreciating both. In fact, the depth of language experiences I’ve had enriches my ability to do this. It’s conscious word choice. It allows your voice to shine.
What are your language influences in life and online?
Where do you pick up new expressions and phrases for your writing? How ‘spongey’ are you to other people’s words? Have you ever found yourself speaking English to someone and not understanding half of what they’re saying? Or taking on their accent so quickly that it sounds like you’re taking the piss?
Share your language influences below.