Find Your Writing Voice
Finding your voice as a writer isn’t easy. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes people who love you reading your stuff and giving you feedback. It takes you writing something, sharing it with the world, and having random people on the Internet yell at you for sounding a way you never intended to sound.
It’s a process. It’s just not a tidy one.
However, there are ways to check your progress. Think of them as growth markers — metaphysical pencil marks up the door jamb of your life, noting each significant leap forward.
In ten years of professional writing, having crafted radio shows, screenplays, short stories, articles, and recently a novel, I can safely say that the five things in this post have all been essential to me finding my voice.
Marker One: #vocabulary
If I may riff on the inimitable Sir Mix-a-lot, I like big words and I cannot lie. I use them in real life conversation, and it’s not to sound smart: I use them because they mean precisely what I want to say.
But not everyone loves big words. So I’ve had to adjust my vocabulary in order to help my readers, while also maintaining my personality. I’ve had editors ask me to roll back some of the SAT vocab, and my early readers often help me recognize when I’m using a word that makes sense to me but does nothing for the reader.
Now, ten years in, I’ve found the balance between my personal style of communication and what is comfortable for the people who read my work. When you know the right words to use to express your personality and connect with your readers, you’ve got the foundation for your voice.
Marker Two: #ownership
I know: what the hell does this even mean? Ownership is the ability to say, “I know what I’m talking about it.” It’s another way of saying that you’ve got the experience necessary to offer valid observations to the world. You have authority as a writer, and not just because you have an opinion. You’ve seen things. You’ve been through things.
Ownership isn’t immediate; it’s something you acquire. The first three years that I blogged, I spent a lot of time pretending to be an expert. I was faking my way through posts, writing absurdly lengthy missives as a way of proving I had something to say. Except, I didn’t.
But those early posts taught me a lot. Not just about craft and discipline, though those lessons came. What the early posts taught me was the work of writing; how to keep pounding away because the process is the magic. Years of words entered into an unyielding screen eventually gave me the credibility and confidence to say, “Yes, I am a professional writer.”
Marker Three: #insight
Everyone has a voice. Not everyone has something to say. Just think about the number of incoherent Facebook ramblings you’ve read in the last two years. Or some people’s Twitter feed every morning. You have to have something to say that’s worth reading.
A large part of your voice comes from what you have to say, the perspective you bring to your work. Insight comes from many sources — what you read, what you hear, what you see, what you do — but it is honed by thinking. Spinning ideas and connections around and around in your head until you see something worth sharing.
Thinking requires time. It also requires space. And it requires commitment — depth of thought comes when you can think about an idea for more than 30 minutes or even a day, and sustained thinking allows you to add layers to your ideas, which makes them richer.
We live in an era of scorching hot takes on just about every platform that allows for human expression. What we sorely need are insightful pieces written by authors who have taken the time and space to think. Insight, not invective, is what changes the world.
Marker Four: #connection
So far, I’ve covered a lot about you, the writer, in part because writing is an inherently personal act. But writing is a two-person dance — there’s you, the scribe, and one other person: the reader. It’s time to spend a couple of paragraphs thinking about that person.
For whom are you writing? What person comes to mind when you sit down to crank out a blog post or an article? Who is going to pick up your books at the local bookshop?
That’s a lot of annoying questions in a row, but they’re helpful. Knowing who you’re writing for helps you figure out how to connect with them, and connection is vital for your voice. It’s how you get your words to resonate with the people who read them.
I connect with readers in a lot of different ways, but one of my favorites is through humor. I like to laugh, and in my experience that’s a fairly universal trait among people. Laughter breaks down barriers and builds bridges, and it also adds a little chemical assistance in the brain.
Humor isn’t for everyone, though, so you might want to try something else. I’ve been told that heart (emotional connection), hope (inspiration), help (practical advice), and healing (spiritual connection) are also great ways to create a bond with readers, and I’ve used each to varying degrees as my career has progressed. Try incorporating different ways of connecting with your audience until you find one that works well for you.
Marker Five: #expectations
This is the last marker because this takes the most time. When you’ve been at it for a while, be it with a blog or articles or even social media posts, you begin to set your audience up to expect certain things.
People don’t go to Stephen King for a children’s story. They don’t turn to Papa Hemingway for florid prose. People like for their favorite writers to hew closely to the expectations they’ve developed, and that goes for you as well.
As you develop your voice, you will be tempted to view those expectations as chains, unnecessary restrictions for you to rage against. Better to view them as fences — healthy boundaries that offer you a wide field in which to play. An audience will give you leeway to stretch yourself, maybe with genre or style, but they will always look to you for the consistency and authenticity you’ve developed over time. Be sure to give it to them.
Find Your Way
So there you have it. Five keys you need to develop your writing voice. Take some time to wrestle down a few questions:
- Where are you at on the journey?
- Where are you likely to stumble?
- What do you need to keep going?
Wherever you are, don’t give up. Stick with it. Lean in. The whole world is waiting, and your voice is worth hearing.
I’d love to hear your feedback, so give me a shout on Twitter at @JasonMuses and we can talk about anything you’d like.