At BBG, we are frequently asked how we will mimic an author/client’s voice. It’s important, whether our task is developmental editing, a full rewrite, or original ghostwriting. It’s an especially important question if Jack and I are both working on the same book, as we recently did. At the beginning of each book project, we develop writing style guidelines with the author. What follows are some of the elements.
Formal vs. conversational voice: Who is the audience for your book and what do they expect? If they are younger professionals in the 20s and 30s, a formal writing style may come across as a tad stuffy. Conversely, a chatty tone may not resonate with senior managers. If you are offering advice in your book, you may want to connect with the reader by using the first and second person–the pronouns I and you.
Contractions vs. no contractions: Formal writing does not include contractions. Examples: scientific papers, corporate documents, financial reports, and most white papers. In the 1800s writing with contractions was considered rather tacky unless you were Mark Twain. His books opened up the market for chatty novels.
Substance: If a book introduces new concepts in what we call an “airplane book,” a 200-pager to be read on the flight to Chicago this morning, footnotes or bibliographic citations may not be necessary. What does the audience expect? You should not claim research supports your point of view without citing that research. An alternative is a “further reading” section or a solid index. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The power of thinking without thinking has no index. Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide has an index. Both books address largely the same topic and both are successful.
Length of elements: Again, it’s about your audience. Exceeding 15-20 words per sentence is risky for casual readers but perhaps acceptable for senior managers in the professions. Many readers are increasingly used to 140-character sentences. Paragraphs should be short. A paragraph with 20 sentences can look like a dark hole on a printed page, but a paragraph with fewer than three sentences can look rather orphaned. Few writers can write long sentences that hold reader attention, and only readers charmed by good writers will tolerate long sentences and dense paragraphs in this era of 2-inch screens.
You can learn more about business book writing by downloading Secrets of Success for Business Book Authors at our website. It’s free, it’s informal, and it’s conversational.
Roger S. Peterson, West Coast Editor