The Way- Finding Your Writing Voice
Finding your “voice” is one of the best ways to separate your writing from the crowd.
Your voice gives life to your writing and resonance to your words. It provides rhythm and connective tissue between your ideas. It is the personality in what you write. Without it your narrative can be bland, reading more like a scientific thesis than a riveting tale. For most readers, that’s boring.
Not knowing your voice can also make the practice of writing very frustrating. Most writers are readers too, and if you don’t enjoy reading your own writing because it just doesn’t come off the page quite right… well, that sucks.
Chances are you want your story or ideas to touch people, or why would you choose to write? Even if writing is your art and you write mostly for yourself, you want your writing to capture your artistic expression on the page. You’ll need a voice for that.
So… voice is important.
What is it, then, and where do you find it?
To figure that out, let’s start with what your writing voice is. As wikipedia says, “it’s a rather vague metaphorical term” that basically refers to the intersection of your unique perspective, tone and writing style. It’s the way you choose to tell a story.
Your outlook on life affects how you choose to connect with the world, which colors the language you use to make those connections. The natural rhythm and flow of how you think influences how you translate that language to the page. Simple, right?
But if your writing voice is so unique to you, why is it something you must “find”? Shouldn’t you just naturally write in your own voice?
My experience tells me yes, you do… but your natural voice might not be the tool you need to tell the story you want to tell. If that’s the case and your writing doesn’t engage readers the way you would like, it might help to develop your writing voice. When people talk about “finding” their writing voice, that’s what they really mean.
Here are 5 things that helped me develop a voice I was happy with.
Identifying an audience.
It might seem out of place to start thinking about your audience early in the writing process, but it’s a great way to calibrate your artistic “compass”. Your readers are your true north. They are your destination.
For them to be interested in reading your work, you’ll have to speak to them in concepts and language that make sense to them. If your rhythm and pace resonate with the way they think about the world, you’ll draw them into your writing. They will hear your message. If you know what moves them, what fires their emotions and soothes their souls, you will connect with them.
And If you’re not worried yet about who will read your writing, I urge you to think about it now. Your success as a writer depends on your ability to connect with the people who might be interested, and to hook them. You can create the most amazing tale ever told, but if people don’t understand it they won’t buy it. And they won’t take away from your writing what’s most important- your message.
Think about who your perfect reader would be. What do they need to hear that you can tell them? What stage of life are they in? Do you want to touch people who are just starting to figure life out, or more mature readers who already have a lot of life experience? Do they want to be informed or entertained?
When you narrow this down, you have your avatar. This is who you’ll be writing for, and knowing that will give you a direction for your language and style. Now you need to:
Study the masters.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s become something of a lost art. With the amount of free content available on the internet, why read something written 50 or 100 years ago? Who even has time for that?
I’ll admit that a lot of stories from that far back don’t resonate with the times, but the emotions do. So does the imagery. Besides, it’s not the stories themselves that will help you develop your voice, but the style and the language.
Charles Dickens is descriptive and emotional while Ernest Hemingway is concise and evocative. Their writing styles couldn’t be more different but we’re still talking about them a century later. That’s voice.
Find a few writers whose style resonates strongly with you and try to understand why they touch you. Consider your audience while you’re looking at their work. How do these writers create emotions and images? Do they use complex or simple language? How does that affect their pacing and the rhythm of the story?
And most importantly, how can you meld their strengths with your desires to find a language and rhythm that communicates your ideas?
When you find the intersection of these points, you’ll be headed in the right direction and ready to hone your skills. Now you just need to…
Once you’ve got an idea of where you want to take your writing voice, you’ll need to practice to really develop it. Practice is a process and, if you want to make the greatest gains in the shortest time possible, you’ll need to do it deliberately.
You may have heard of the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft. On it’s own, this idea is a little misleading. You can spend all the time in the world swinging a golf club, but if you don’t take steps to improve your swing you won’t get any better.
Deliberate practice is the science of doing something purposefully and systematically in order to improve your performance. While that sounds dry and complicated, it basically just means that you’re practicing your art with a specific intention in mind.
For example, choose your favorite scene or piece of writing you’ve been working on. Think about your audience-specific research and study of the masters. Then, write your scene. Do it blurt-style with no pauses or edits. Give your voice free rein to wander and see where it takes you!
Now it’s time for deliberate practice. Edit your scene with a focus on language. Use only words that will resonate with your readers but modify the style so that it still feels natural to you. Are you aiming for simple language that reads easily or flowery, descriptive words that paint a complete picture? Do you need to be more technical to get your point across, or less?
When you get something readable, edit again- this time for pace. Shorten your sentences and simplify your thoughts in areas where you want to increase tension. Use more commas and longer sentences when you want the reader to relax.
Next, edit for style. Make sure there’s personality in your narrative, yours or your characters. Try to create a tone that matches the emotion of your scene. Look for places to add “impact statements”- lines that sum up a universal truth your readers will identify with. These are the lines people will remember and quote, one of the greatest compliments a writer can receive.
By the end of an exercise like this, you should be pretty comfortable with your voice and what you want it to be. Now it’s time to unleash it on your work and…
Write with purpose.
With deliberate practice, you’re writing with an intention to improve your craft. There is purpose, but it’s directed toward your skills- not your art. Writing with purpose is more about working toward a specific place in your project so you have a clearly-defined goal. Deliberate practice would say “I’m heading west And I want to be a better driver when I get there”. Writing with purpose says “I’m going to Los Angeles and I’ll be there by 3:30 on Wednesday”.
Writing without an end goal in mind allows your creativity and mind to wander. That’s great when you’re building your story and the world around it, or developing aspects of your voice or style. But once you’ve “discovered” your voice, it’s a good idea to rein it in with purpose and direction.
Think about, and understand, your scene or post before you write it. What actions and results need to happen to move your narrative forward? What is the emotional charge of what you’re writing (positive/negative)? Who are your POV’s and why? Where do you want the whole thing to end up? And finally, what’s a realistic stopping point you can reach in this writing session?
Setting your boundaries ahead of time is like giving your voice a racetrack. Once you learn to write “within the lines” you can allow your thinking brain to turn off- which will help you get out of your own way. Your voice and style can take over, which invites inspiration. That can lead to flow, and that’s where you want to be. That’s where you’re writing finds it’s best self.
But you have to be careful not regulate your purpose too strictly. It can be easy to get locked in a rut and not even notice. This is when writer’s block happens, and that can slow your development greatly. The quickest way out of this is to…
Change it up.
If you get stuck in a creative slump or feel that your development has leveled off, try something different. If you’re normally a fiction writer, try creating a blog post about a subject that gets you fired up. If you’re a blogger, see what you can do with a romance story. If you’re writing romance, try a superhero action scene.
The idea is to shock your creative system and wake it up because sometimes we get too fixated on one path. The benefit is that writing something different expands our voices. We adopt different perspectives when we force ourselves to solve new challenges. And that opens up new options, new pathways of thinking that can be the difference between a story or post that “works”, or one that falls flat.
When you return to your “stuck” project afterwards, you might see things differently and that can drive you out of your rut. And best of all, you probably will have expanded your voice. Even if your blog voice and your novel voice need to be different, they are both born within you and nurturing one is bound to help the other.
Using these 5 techniques can help you find a writing voice that fits you. My next post will go into how I used them to find my own voice. If you’re not quite sure how to implement these steps, maybe a real-life example will help.