Think of your favorite author. Or your favorite story. What is it about the way that author writes, or the way in which that story was written, that sticks with you even now?
It’s likely what captivates you has everything to do with the voice through which a certain story is told.
If you really think about it, many stories are the same copies of each other in terms of basic framework. And we are all using the same words to create stories. It isn’t the story or the words themselves that make a piece of writing unique. It is the way a writer presents them on a page.
What is a writer’s “voice”? It’s a combination of the specific tones and styles you use when telling a story. In your literature classes growing up you might remember a lot of discussions about famous authors revolving around what distinguished them from others or set them apart. That’s a writer’s voice — their way of presenting words that typically makes them stand out.
How does a writer “find” their voice? I could skip to the end of the fable and say your voice has been inside you all along and we could laugh about it, but that’s actually not far from the truth. Your “writer’s voice” is actually the way you think and maybe even the way you speak. It’s already there.
The problem is that it’s not easy to master the art of capturing how your thoughts “sound” and applying it to a blank page. It’s not that you don’t KNOW your own voice. It just takes a while to figure out how to present your work to other people in that voice that’s literally been in your head the whole time.
There’s no one true method for figuring out how to write in your own distinct voice. That’s because it really only develops thanks to two things: Consuming other writers’ work and writing your own.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “How can I write if I don’t know how to write in my own voice yet?” The answer? You don’t write in your own voice at all — at least, you don’t write with the intention of doing so. The best way to “find” your voice is sort of by accidentally discovering it — gradually, over time — as you write.
But it goes a little deeper than that. If you’re going to find your voice through writing, you also have to be prepared to discover … yourself.
Explore unknown possibilities. I don’t believe you can continue to grow as a writer if you continue writing the same things over and over, publishing them for the same audiences, always inviting your readers to hang out with you inside your comfort zone. But this is also an important strategy for establishing your unique voice in a way that distinguishes you as “you” no matter where your words appear.
I first started publishing my work online through this blog. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I became writing in the tone and style I felt best suited me. I did this for three years before I landed my first writing opportunity outside my own website. And then I faced a completely new challenge: How do I write for a magazine and still write like “me”?
It took a long time to get comfortable enough writing for that magazine to the point where I felt I could “be myself.” If you’ve ever deliberately modeled your tone or style off of something else you’ve just read — even if you don’t do it on purpose — you know what it feels like. It makes you feel like you’re a robot locked into a computer program trying to get everything “just right.”
But once you break through that restraint, you start to notice you can bring your unique voice to anything you write. The best way I’ve found to practice this strategy and get more comfortable with your own voice is to write for different audiences. You might have your blog, but you might also write for a website or newspaper, or you might start chipping away at a book.
You have to challenge yourself to get comfortable in different corners. This not only helps you “find” your voice, but can also help to make it stronger. Your voice is uniquely yours — it is a blend of your favorite styles from other authors and who you are as a person. The more widespread and versatile you can make your voice, the easier it will be to apply it wherever you go.
Show your audience who you really are. I recently received a message from an editor on a website I write for weekly. Her note was extremely kind and much appreciated — she just wanted to reach out and let me know she loved the “unique” voice I had been contributing to the publication. Aw, sweet. But much sweeter than you might think.
You see, I’d been struggling to figure out where my ideas “fit” on this site. I’m trained to pretty much write about anything — all you need is a unique angle and mad research skills and you’re good to go (see future post about my thoughts on expertise in online publishing). I can take any topic and squeeze a story out of it.
But I was continuously publishing news commentary that, to me, felt dry and uninteresting. I was frustrated with myself for not being able to figure out how to write a “good’ article.
I don’t know if I can explain exactly what happened to change all this. What I do know is that one day I simply decided to throw caution to the wind and write an essay that took on the kind of tone I personally prefer to read these days: Mildly sarcastic with a healthy dose of insightful prose. It was a little more personal than I felt comfortable with at the time and I even told the editor who approved the assignment I would be happy to rewrite it if it wasn’t, I don’t know … good?
It turned out fine. Actually, it turned out that this story is still my top-viewed piece on that site. So using whatever blend of thoughtfulness and humor I have apparently created (it’s hard to define your voice when it’s just … you?) I continue to approach each assignment that way, and so far, it has worked to my advantage.
My writing voice IS me. I don’t take many things too seriously. I like things that are universally relatable. I like finding the small fascinations hidden within the mundane. That’s why this blog has turned out as well as it has. I am fully myself. I hold nothing back — I mean, within semi-professional reason.
Do that. Be as vulnerable as you can stand to be. Remember that you’re just a person like any other, and there’s bound to be someone out there who gets exactly where you’re coming from. People who judge and/or harass you for being you are just motivated by their fear of being themselves. Don’t poke the angry bears.
Dive deeper into the things that interest you. If you follow me on Twitter you know it’s no secret I’m a Star Wars fan. It’s one of the few things in 2019 that has made me cry actual tears of joy on more than one occasion. I am fascinated by it. And I’ve been told (you know how I am about self-praise — ugh, it gives me hives, don’t make me do it) that you can tell how much I love it based on how I write about it.
The more I think about Star Wars and the connections we can draw between its stories and ourselves, the more I want to talk about it. And when I’m excited about something — and trust me, I’ve tried — I can’t stifle my inner nerd. She comes OUT.
But that’s why (I’m told) my articles work. Your “writer’s voice” is the way, style, tone, cadence with which you write when you stop thinking and just start typing sentences. You will always default to your true voice. Writers first train themselves not to do that as they’re figuring out how writing works — sometimes you have to learn how to write with a little bit more structure and formality before you can reapply your own style. You eventually have to train yourself to go back.
This process of becoming your own unique writer self can take a while. That can feel discouraging at times — I know; I’ve been there. But if it means anything, looking back I can say for certain that when you do start to feel you can truly express yourself fully through your words, it’s a kind of freedom I’m not sure you’ll find anywhere else. Getting to that place takes a lot of work. But it is worth every word.
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.