“I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still”
― Sylvia Plath
MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about how to “find” your writing voice — I have written and taught classes on this topic myself — but maybe it would be more accurate to say that you are not finding your voice as much as learning to recognize and accept and strengthen it.
Did you know that your speaking voice is as unique as your fingerprints? It’s true. No two voices are alike: your height, weight, sex, allergies, vocal chords, other physical structural differences, emotions, and environment are all part of how your voice develops.
The same is true of your writing voice. Your sex, gender identification, upbringing, ethnicity, family and location cultures, and socio-economic status all factor into how you learn to express yourself. And that expression is as unique as your speaking voice. In fact, your writing voice is an extension of your speaking voice.
So why does it seem so hard to “find”? And why bother with “voice” at all?
Think about the first time you heard your recorded voice played back to you. Most likely, your voice sounded strange, almost foreign, to you. It was higher or deeper pitched or more breathy or nasal than you thought. Most people don’t like to hear recordings of their voices because of that strangeness. I’ve seen people wrinkle their noses and physically recoil when they hear themselves recorded for the first time.
We’re not used to hearing our voice from the outside, through our ears alone; we’re used to hearing how it sounds as it resonates from within us.
Great singers and public speakers hone their craft by acknowledging and learning to embrace and strengthen their natural voice. They work to enhance and leverage the very qualities that make their voices stand out.
The same is true of writing. You think you sound one way as you’re pouring out your thoughts, images, and ideas on the page, when you really come across another way. You’re perceiving the resonance of your voice from the inside out. And so, when you get enough distance from your writing to read it objectively, to “hear” it from the outside, it doesn’t sound like you. Or at least the “you” you were attempting to express.
To your ears, you sound like someone singing to music with their headphones on — murmuring to herself and slightly off-key. No wonder you feel discouraged.
The key to developing a strong writing voice is to embrace and strengthen your individual qualities of expression — qualities that convey your unique worldview. And, like great singers and public speakers, you must practice constantly and consistently, You must listen carefully to your own intonations, inflections, and qualities of expression, and then fine tune through more practice. And, in the case of writing, learn to edit well.
Yes, it’s true that some people are born with stronger voices or intuitively have more control over those voices. They’re lucky. But, unless suffering from tone-deafness, anyone can learn to sing well. And the same is true of writing. You might not end up as an opera star or ultra-famous writer, but you can learn to express yourself articulately and authentically and in ways that make a difference in the world.Finding your voice is not the goal; learning to express yourself well and authentically is. Click To Tweet
Here are ten tips to help you strengthen your authentic voice:
- Read a lot, and analyze what you read. You’ve heard this before — in order to write well, you need to read constantly. It’s also important to analyze the voice and style of the works you read — particularly the voice of authors you love. Identify what about their writing is so appealing to you. Is it that their writing feels relaxed and effusive? Do they use poetic language? Is all their writing dipped in sensory detail, or are they spare and restrained, leaving much between the lines for the reader to infer?
- Write and write and write — then write some more. Write letters, emails, texts, business correspondence, stories, vignettes, and essays. And approach all your writing creatively. Each type of writing is like a different kind of music — are you singing an easy-listening ballad or screaming heavy metal? Each type of writing requires a different kind of skill. Expand your range, from restrained to demonstrative, from circumspect to straightforward and even blunt. Which styles feel the most natural to you? Which do you enjoy writing the most? How do you express your own personality in each type of writing?
- Emulate your favorite writers. It may seem counterintuitive to strengthen your own voice by imitating others, yet imitation will help you figure out what feels right for you. Copy sentence and paragraph structure and length, but with your own story. Copy the use of colloquialisms, but substitute your own. Copy descriptive techniques. And while you do so, notice what resonates as natural to your own way of speaking (and I do mean speaking). You’ll begin to differentiate yourself while learning new techniques.
- Write from your own experience. Let your life experiences, the people you know, the events you’ve experienced inspire the events and people on the page. When your writing comes from life, your unique metaphors, images, and themes will naturally emerge.
- Write from the senses. You have your own way of experiencing the world from a sensory perspective. When writing creatively, immerse your readers in your narrator’s or character’s world through the senses, and you can only do this if you write about how you feel those experiences in your body. Make it personal, and your readers will feel it personally.
- Write from your heart. Write about what’s important to you, what you feel passionate about. When you write on a topic that doesn’t resonate for you, your writing is apt to feel forced (because it is), dry, and academic. But when you write about themes and topics that are meaningful, you will express your authentic passion and worldview — your voice — naturally. So ask yourself: What is most important in life? What do you value most? What issues in the world keep you awake at night? What kinds of people and places are you drawn to? These are just a few questions that will help you clarify your worldview.
- Write to a particular someone. Keep one person, someone who represents your ideal reader, in mind when you write. Your writing will be more focused and coherent. Think about it — what we say and how we say it depends upon who we are talking to. If you write a story for a child, how you tell that story will be very different from how you would tell it to an adult. If you are writing a story for a 20-something woman who loves travel, you’re going to express yourself in a much different way than you would if you were writing a story for a retiree living in a trailer park in Florida. I’m just saying . . .
- Avoid clichés and develop your own metaphors. We view life through the lens of metaphor, and that lens develops differently in different people. A great exercise is to turn ordinary objects into personal metaphors. Look around and select any object — a picture frame, a rug, a chair, a coffee cup — and create a metaphor or simile that corresponds that object with an abstract concept. My article on Discovering Your Personal Metaphors contains a few exercises to help you do that.
- Play with intonation. Who are you on the page? In letters and personal essays and memoir, you write conversationally, intimately. Writing fiction requires you to take on the persona of the narrator. To act a part. How do you, the actor, infuse that persona with your energy?
- Be bold and break the rules when it works. Pablo Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” It’s important to know the rules of grammar and common writing conventions about adverbs and attributions and syntax. But writers who understand their authentic voice break the rules when doing so serves the story. Language is fluid; there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to expressing yourself.
I’ll end with a quote from Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
“If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.”