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Literary Voice: Don't Parrot Cliches, but Do Read, Read, Read

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: We continue our discussion with University of Delaware English Professor Ben Yagoda about his recent book called "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing."

RS: He based the book on interviews he had with more than 40 writers who he considers to have a strong personal style. And Ben Yagoda says a distinctive voice begins with originality in what the writer has to say.

BEN YAGODA: "The worst possible thing is to use the phrases that everyone else is using because then you just sound like everyone else. So trying to become aware of the cliches in the language and the ones you use yourself. Being aware of vocabulary so that, at the very least, you're using the word that you intend to use and not something else. So really it's like a clearing away of the underbrush that I think is the first step.

"Reading your work out loud, I think, is probably the best single piece of advice. We talk about 'voice' and 'hearing your writing.' Those are all metaphors. But if you can make that literal by reading aloud, that can certainly help."

AA: "That actually raises a good question that a lot of people have, which is: Are you writing for the ear, or are you writing it for the eye? Should there be a conscious difference between the two?"

BEN YAGODA: "That's a great question, and in fact one of my conclusions in this book, and looking at all different kinds of writers who are distinctive, is that, of the different things that differentiate writers' styles, probably the one I'd think of as most important is the extent to which that writer is more of a spoken writer or a written writer. I mean, on the one hand, you have Elmore Leonard -- spoken, detective writer. Or Hemingway. On the other hand, (there is the writer) Henry James, and everywhere in between.

"And pretty much everybody has a mix, and either one can work. Certainly, if you're writing a hard-boiled detective novel you don't want to sound like Henry James, and if you're writing a dissertation for tenure, you don't want to sound like Elmore Leonard. So the kind of thing you're writing necessitates part of it. But even within any genre or form of writing, there's a lot of room for stylistic differentiation."

RS: "What can students of English as a foreign language learn from reading -- "

BEN YAGODA: "Oh God ... "

RS: " -- different styles in English?"

BEN YAGODA: "They can learn everything, and certainly that's -- my students, who are mostly native speakers, usually quite bright and interested and all that, but the biggest problem in their writing stems from the fact they haven't read enough. So reading as much, as you can and as many different kinds of writing as you can, is the single best thing for improving your own writing, whether you're a native speaker or learning English as a second language."

RS: "So that promotes what in the learning process?"

BEN YAGODA: "It promotes awareness of the way different writers work, of vocabulary, of different rhetorical effects like irony and metaphor. And some of it is conscious: you say, 'Oh I see the way Kurt Vonnegut uses irony.' But more of it is unconscious or subliminal.

"When you read these things carefully, you absorb it. And then, when you're sitting looking at your blank piece of paper or your computer screen, the things that you've read suddenly become part of your array of options in your own writing. And then it gets bigger and bigger, and richer and richer."

RS: "One last question, has your style changed after writing this book?"

BEN YAGODA: "I would say I'm more aware of my style. I was looking at a piece I wrote 15 or 18 years ago, and it sounded too fancy. There were too many big words. I'm a fan of big words when they serve a purpose. But it seemed like it was a little too literary for not necessary reasons. So I think whether it's because of this book or maturity or whatever, my style has become a little bit simpler over time."

AA: University of Delaware English Professor Ben Yagoda is author of the book "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing." We asked him to recommend a few other books noteworthy for their style and voice.

RS: He suggested works like "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, "The White Album" and "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" by Joan Didion, and "The Right Stuff" and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. All of our segments can be found online at And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.