Q: How do I write in someone else’s voice?
A: First get their voice in your head.
Remember that scene in the movie Working Girl, where Melanie Griffith vacuums her boss’s house while listening to the boss’s dictation recordings?
If you don’t remember the part about the recordings, I forgive you. You may have been distracted by the filmmaker’s choice of costume for the scene: a bra and skimpy panties. I don’t know what your go-to housecleaning outfit is, but mine sure doesn’t come from Victoria’s Secret. Ah, the magic of movies. But I digress.
My point is that Melanie Griffith’s character was immersing herself in her boss’s voice. She needed to erase her Staten Island accent because in the ’80s, it would have marked her clearly and unequivocally as a secretary. (We didn’t even call them “assistants” back then.) By listening to the dictation tapes repeatedly, she also immersed herself in her boss’s syntax, her way of speaking, her tone and pace, the kinds of words she chose.
You want to sound like someone else? Do that. (Lingerie optional.)
Listen, read, type really fast
The Working Girl method doesn’t adapt all that well to 21st century: Who records dictation tapes anymore?
So when I start writing for a new client, the first thing I ask for is videos of them speaking and anything they’ve written. Those are imperfect proxies, though, because it’s safe to assume that they didn’t actually write the speech you’re watching them give. How can we assume that? Well, they hired you, right?
If you can score an actual sit-down chat with that client—even on the phone—that is golden. I type very quickly, so I generally take notes verbatim. Yes, I write down every word they say, even the “ums” and the verbal false starts and the “ums.”
If you can’t type that quickly, ask for permission to record the call. (Actually, I may start doing that too.) Explain that listening to a recording is the best way to learn to write in someone else’s voice. And the closer you can come to their voice, the better your first draft will be.
Once you have the recording, make like Melanie Griffith and play that sucker nonstop until you can repeat it word for word.
And every time you sit down to write for that client, schedule five to 10 minutes to listen to the recording as a warm-up. After a while, you won’t need the reminder. Work with one person long enough and you get to the point where you know what’s going to come out of their mouth almost before they do.
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