Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Most of us are familiar with register, even if we haven’t called it by that name. It’s a term that refers to the formality of language, and it’s easily recognizable in the difference between a cover letter for a resume and the email you send your best friend. The ability to vary your register isn’t only important when e-meeting a new client or texting your significant other. It can make or break your book, too. If you want to use the right register in the right moment, consider who you’re talking as and who you’re talking to.
Who you’re talking as: register in your book
Register in dialogue
The most obvious place where register needs to be applied with care is in dialogue. If your child characters talk like grumpy old men, or your academics sound illiterate, the reader is unlikely to engage with your work. We’ve already covered this topic in detail in another article, so I’ll only highlight one point here: it doesn’t work to have all your characters talking like you, either. Often, an author’s default style is to write all dialogue in their own voice. It’s a good way to crank out words, but be aware that the output will need to be tweaked (or sometimes blasted into oblivion and rebuilt from scratch) until the characters sound like themselves.Register is part of what gives each character a unique voice.Click To Tweet
Register is the reason we scarcely need chapter titles to know the difference between Orleana’s voice:
You’ll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled, and now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods.
– Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
…and Ruth May’s:
Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drownded out the sinners.
– Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
…and Kingsolver’s own:
Driving through our little town in late fall, still a bit love-struck for Tuscany’s charm, I began to see my hometown through new eyes. We don’t have medieval hilltop towns, but we do have bucolic seasonal decor and we are not afraid to use it.
“Look,” I cried to my family, “we live in Pleasantville.” They were forced to agree.
– Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Register in narrative
Another thing authors have to watch out for is using their own everyday register to narrate a story or – the opposite extreme – using some contrived voice that feels other-than-me but isn’t suited to the tone of the story. A Gentleman in Moscow gives us a beautiful example of an author assuming a formal register in service of the story.
In the lobby, the count gave a wide wave with which to simultaneously greet the unflappable Arkady (who was manning the front desk) and sweet Valentina (who was dusting a statuette)… the count came to an abrupt stop before the potted palms in order to address his escort.
– Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
The use of formal grammar (‘with which to simultaneously greet’) and vocabulary (‘statuette’) and even prepositions (‘before the potted palms’ instead of ‘in front of’) immerses the reader in 1920s Moscow in ways beyond physical setting descriptions. Instead of simply being told when the story takes place, the reader begins to feel like they’re living in another time whenever they crack the book.
Ill-suited register is disorienting, and takes the reader out of this immersive experience, as when Towles slips up and references ‘baby carrots’, which didn’t exist for another several decades after Count Rostov was confined to the Metropol. Towles retains reader confidence because the rest of the book is so carefully crafted, but too many instances where the register doesn’t suit the story will mean a loss of reader trust. Imagine if I’ve set a story in the late 1700s, and I use setting details to make this fact known, but the language I use reflects my 21st century habits:
Charles and Lucille walked casually past the grocery store, holding hands and chatting about nothing in particular.
Though this is an extreme example, it illustrates a lack of attention manifest in the details: there weren’t ‘grocery stores’, ‘chatting’ wasn’t a thing until the 1800s, men and women wouldn’t have been holding hands in public, and on the whole, my tone doesn’t reflect the formal tone associated with that time period. Note that I don’t have to adopt King’s English in my narrative (though dialogue might do well to throw in a few ye’s and thou’s), but higher-order grammar and vocabulary are requisite.Considered register can be a powerful tool for world-building and/or establishing setting.Click To Tweet
Who you’re talking to: register in professional communications
Not all of a writer’s work goes into the book (some would say more of it is out of the book). There are blogs to maintain, guest blogs to score, publishers and agents to convince, adoring fans to thank, and obnoxious anti-fans to placate.
Blog posts should have a friendly tone – not quite as lax as a text to your lifelong best friend, but not stiff and professional either. Depending on your relationship with your coworkers, the way you talk with them might be a good prototype. One thing to keep in mind in your blogs: speak with authority, but remember that every reader is an authority on something. The former will give you confidence; the latter, humility. Articles that are written by people who have no humility are off-putting. Those that lack authority are disengaging.
Lack of humility: As the Master of Horror, I’m here to set you straight on what it takes to write great terror. So, listen up!
Lack of authority: I guess I feel like too many authors are wondering how to go about writing horror. Though no one can know for sure, here’s what I’ve found to be true. This is just my experience; you might find other answers to be true for you.
Balance: I’ve been in the position of a first-time horror author, and I know the questions and concerns that kept me up at night. That’s why, in this blog post, I’ll be sharing my tips to writing great horror.
Communication with fans – adoring and loathing alike – boils down to one key element: warmth. Your comments may vary with context, sometimes saying ‘thanks’ or accommodating criticism, but should always come across respectfully and with kindness. When responding to criticism (especially unjust criticism), don’t think of the author of the critique. Think of the people who will read your reply. Imagine leaving them with the impression that nothing can ruffle you. You are full of grace. The best way to do this isn’t usually to reject the commenter’s critique or to counter-argue. Rather, thank them for their perspective, and perhaps reiterate your position without any ‘buts’ or ‘howevers’ to put them on the defensive.
The most formal communications you’re likely to draft are pitches – to publishers, librarians, agents, advertisers, book stores, whoever. Bear in mind, though, that ‘formal’ doesn’t mean what it used to. Nothing’s a bigger turn-off these days than opening an email with ‘Dear Sir or Madam.’ Find out the name of the person you’re writing to and give them a warm, polite ‘Hi, Irene’. Strive for authenticity in the rest of the message. Don’t be too authoritarian, and don’t try too hard to impress. While it might be okay to relate to your readers’ struggles in a blog post, a pitch letter isn’t the place to display that kind of vulnerability. Confidence and humility are the undertones, and email-to-your-boss (who you like) should influence the words you choose.Negotiating register isn’t just about your art, it’s about how you talk to fans, publishers, and potential readers.Click To Tweet
The final word
The best way to attain awareness of and control over your register is to bury yourself in a variety of examples. For in-book writing, this means the work of other authors, while mastering out-of-book register means referring to communications from people you admire. If you’ve got a good relationship with your boss (past or present), revisit some of their communications. When you notice a blogger responds graciously to commenters, bookmark them under ‘register’ and refer back to their tone for inspiration. All things considered, your out-of-book communications should still sound like you, but the ‘you’ best suited to the moment.
Have you ever read a book where the register either won you over or turned you off? Share it in the comments below, or try your hand at an example of deliberately poorly crafted register. You can also check out Your Complete Guide To Writing Perspective: Who, When, How and 3 Questions You Need To Answer Before You Can Write With A Strong, Distinctive Voice for more great advice on this topic.