The Sponge Effect: When You Can’t Help But Write Using Someone Else’s Voice

It happens to the best of us — and you can do something about it.

Every writer brings something unique to a story. The reason two people can’t tell the same story the exact same way is because each does so in their own voice, using their own style.

Have you ever noticed that, whenever you read someone else’s work, you start writing like them? All of a sudden you’re writing as if someone else has taken over — even when you don’t mean to?

I call this the “sponge effect.” It’s not uncommon to absorb the voice and writing style of the things you’re reading, especially as a newer writer. That’s because every writer’s unique style develops from picking up bits and pieces of various styles and putting them together to create something new.

So, in a way, it’s a good thing.

It’s also really annoying. You don’t want to necessarily write like your favorite author. You want to write like … well, you.

The good news: you can learn to stop being a sponge.

The bad news: it takes a lot of time, patience, and practice.

Nothing in writing is instantaneous. Anything and everything there is to learn, you must do so with as much patience as you can bear.

But the fact that you’re sitting here in front of your rough draft realizing you’re not writing in your own style is a good place to start. Many writers can’t even recognize they’re still absorbing the many voices of the writers they’re reading from.

Developing your unique voice, as a writer, is something that only happens when you write consistently over a span of years. That’s not very fun to hear. But it’s the truth.

Even I still struggle with this. For me, for some reason, it only happens when I’m reading nonfiction. When I read Shonda Rhimes’ memoir, it took me a few blog posts to stop writing mostly in her voice and style. But I was able to recognize that I wasn’t quite writing like “me,” and I corrected the problem fairly quickly. It’s happened more than once.

The only way to teach yourself to write like “you” is to practice writing like you, even when you’re doing what you should be doing — reading others’ work. Maybe you’ll never get rid of the temptation to shift voice and style completely.

But the stronger and more refined your own voice and style become, the easier it will be to get back on track the second you realize you’ve run off the rails.

So, in a nutshell, the best way to train yourself to avoid the habit is to have your own strong voice. And the best way to do that is to write. A lot. Even while you read.

It’s not hard. There’s just no instant gratification in the process. But it IS possible.

Big thanks to Liz for asking this question! If you can’t find the answers you’re looking for on Novelty Revisions, just ask. I might write an entire post addressing your query.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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10 thoughts on “The Sponge Effect: When You Can’t Help But Write Using Someone Else’s Voice

  1. Even when you start to ‘sponge’ someone else, you usually bring your own unique flair to it.

    Maybe ‘sponging’ off of someone could be done on purpose if you have multiple POV and you want to get the voices distinct. Read a little in the style you’d like to be reminiscent of, and then roll with it.

    1. True. As I said, a writer’s unique style is technically made up of elements of those that came before them. But the more you practice, the more that unique flair shines through. :)

  2. I find it very difficult to consciously control “my style”. Often it just “bleeds through” whatever I’m trying to do.
    I’m reminded of how the Chronicles of Narnia began because C.S. Lewis heard about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, had even read some of the text, and yet the two are very different, just as the authors are.

    One solution, in my mind, is to read diversely. I generally tend to read a little by one author, then switch to another, make sure that there’s a nice blend in my subconscious.
    The more diverse your writing palette, the less likely you are to imitate any specific author, in theory.

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