How Writing Is "Supposed to Sound" Vs. Writing Your Perceptions

by David Miller Apr 26, 2010
This week David Miller mashes up a few thoughts on how writing is supposed to sound versus writing from one’s perceptions.

HAPPY MONDAY. This week I wanted to mash up a few different thoughts on narrative nonfiction and travel writing. This has been an ongoing discussion among our team, and something we’re continually examining at MatadorU.

I feel like for some reason–perhaps the way writing has been taught in school over the last several decades, or the fact that it’s part of our everyday communication (as opposed to say, drawing or playing music)–most nonfiction, even “creative” nonfiction writing seems much less stylistically diverse than other forms of artistic expression. I’m not talking about content but more the style through which it’s delivered–sentence structure, expressions, usage.

This may just be the inherent limitations of the form, of  textual vs. visual or auditory media, but I believe it also has to do with people’s perceptions of how writing is supposed to “sound.”

Here’s an example. Some writers continue to use anthropomorphism in their writing, saying things like “The hawks ‘braved’ the ‘menacing’ wind,” even though there is no cultural, philosophical, religious, or any other frame of reference expressed in their writing that shows they actually see the world (nature as having human characteristics) this way.

Other examples include using cliches or expressions that suggest things the writer may not necessarily believe, but uses anyway as they “sound right.” For a brilliant study of this, read David Foster Wallace’s essay on usage, “Present Tense.

Writing from the way you perceive events

A response to this, one that we commonly tell writers at Matador, is to “write from the way you perceive.” Doing this is a kind of discipline, I think. You have to go back and look at everything you write, questioning–“do I really think this, or does it just ‘sound good’. . .or is it just a way of  explaining something as I’ve had it explained to me or read elsewhere, as opposed to the way I understand it?”

In a way it’s the opposite of (or perhaps a good follow-up to) writing in the “ecstatic” tradition, the Kerouac-style of just letting the words flow and trusting the “act of creation” itself.

I think it helps sometimes to create new structures as guidelines for shaping the way you narrate. I tried this at my blog last week. I don’t know if it’s helped my writing yet, but it was edifying in the sense that it made me look differently at various elements of nonfiction writing, particularly at providing information about cultural references (ex: “He was wearing a boina, ‘a kind of South American newsboy cap.'”) within the body of an article.

(Note on this: It seems we’re at a point in time whereby, via Google (and soon, augmented reality), references are no longer needed within the text, but may simply be linked or assumed as knowledge shared by the reader.)


Ironically, creating a new framework for expressing your perceptions is just another way of writing according to how things “sound.” There is definitely a kind of “danger” in this, as you can reach a point (something each writer must find for him/herself) where you’re no longer writing with the reader in mind but only for yourself.  Some people argue that when this happens (an “audience of one”), there is no longer a point of entry for the reader.

But I believe that if your thought and writing process is guided by, driven by honesty–a sense of truth-seeking–then it doesn’t matter: your writing will, by default, have meaning for others, and a readership beyond yourself.

Community Connection

How do you reconcile gaps between how you perceive place / culture / people, and how you express it in writing? Please share with us in the comments.

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