When a reader says they love the way an author writes, they usually are talking about much more than the author’s style. For example, a fan of Ernest Hemingway might love Hemingway’s economy with words, but also the way he brings characters and places to life and how he views the world.
A distinct voice makes your writing resonate with readers. Even if you’re writing about a topic that has been discussed by others a hundred times before, your unique voice and perspective bring something new to the topic.
Readers who fall in love with your writing voice become your truest fans impatiently awaiting your next article or story. And once you find your unique voice, your writing becomes a truer representation of yourself.
Novelist Meg Rosoff observes,
Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.
In today’s blog post, I’m sharing five methods you can use to find your writing voice. Let’s dive in.
1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sound of Your Writing” Method
A few months ago, I wrote a review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful book Steering the Craft. Le Guin’s book deals with the nuts and bolts of the craft of writing and the subtle stylistic choices that will help you take your writing to the next level.
In my review, I briefly shared Le Guin’s exercise that trains you to pay attention to the sound of your writing. This is a fantastic first step to help you begin developing your unique writing voice. After all, you can’t develop your voice if you don’t know what it sounds like.
Le Guin explains,
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of writing depend on these sounds and rhythms…
Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sounds of language. Others ‘outgrow’ their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.
Le Guin shares a writing exercise that encourages you to have fun and play with the sound of your writing:
I want you to write for pleasure — to play. Just listen to the sounds and rhythms of the sentences you write and play with them, like a kid with a kazoo. This isn’t ‘free writing,’ but it’s similar in that you’re relaxing control: you’re encouraging the words themselves — the sounds of them, the beats and echoes to lead you for the moment, forget all the good advice that says good style is invisible, good art conceals art. Show off! Use the whole orchestra our wonderful language offers us!
Write it for children, if that’s the way you can give yourself permission to do it. Write it for your ancestors. Use any narrating voice you like…Have fun, cut loose, play around, repeat, invent, feel free.
I love that Le Guin’s exercise is all about playing with language. In order to develop your voice, you have to take the pressure off yourself to write something spectacular. Experiment with your sentences, relax, and have fun.
This leads into method #2 from Jack Hart.
2. Jack Hart’s “Relax” Method
I’ve written several blog posts about Jack Hart’s excellent writing craft book Storycraft. Hart served for many years as managing editor at The Oregonian, the Pacific Northwest’s largest newspaper. He also guided several Pulitzer-prize winning articles to publication.
In this book, he teaches everything that he learned from his many years as a journalist. And he also shares his secret to developing your writing voice:
…The ultimate secret to letting your voice sound on the page is simply to relax and be yourself. Writing’s stressful. Sit down at a keyboard, and unconscious waves of tension ripple through your body. You clench your teeth. You tighten your shoulders. You tap your foot. And the words flowing through your fingers grow rigid and formal, stiffened with the frozen formality of an awkward job interview.
When I’m running a writing workshop, I usually stop the participants halfway through their first drafting exercise. ‘Time for a tension check,’ I say, explaining that if their necks, backs, and shoulders are tight their writing will suffer. They loosen up, go back to work, and the clatter of laptop keys ramps up a notch or two.
That change in pace is important. A relaxed writer is a fast writer, and fast writers sound more like themselves. It only makes sense. Writers who agonize over a rough draft, futzing with every word, will submerge their true selves in nondescript formality. When we speak with the natural rhythms of an at-ease conversation with friends, we reveal who we really are. Writing’s not spoken conversation, of course, but the same principle applies.
I love Hart’s tip to check in with yourself while writing and make sure you’re not tensing your neck, back, or shoulders. I too have found that my best writing usually comes when I am relaxed and writing quickly.
This reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s advice in his book Zen in the Art of Writing. He tells us to write our first draft with our hearts, not our heads:
The history of each story, then, should read almost like a weather report: Hot today, cool tomorrow. This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour cold critical water upon the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today — explode — fly apart — disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire too?
In his book, Bradbury also shared one of his first steps to find your writing voice: imitate the style of your favorite writers.
3. Ray Bradbury’s “Imitation” Method
When you’re a beginning writer, you need models to guide you so you know what good writing and a strong, unique voice sound like. Bradbury encourages beginning writers to imitate more experienced writers,
I hasten to add here that imitation is natural and necessary to the beginning writer. In the preparatory years, a writer must select that field where he thinks his ideas will develop comfortably. If his nature in any way resembles the Hemingway philosophy, it is correct that he will imitate Hemingway. If Lawrence is his hero, a period of imitating Lawrence will follow. If the westerns of Eugene Manlove Rhodes are an influence, it will show in the writer’s work.
Work and imitation go together in the process of learning. It is only when imitation outruns its natural function that a man prevents his becoming truly creative. Some writers will take years, some a few months, before they come upon the truly original story in themselves. After millions of words of imitation, when I was twenty-two years old I suddenly made the breakthrough, relaxed, that is, into originality with a ‘science fiction’ story that was entirely my ‘own.’
Of course, a corollary to this is to read widely so you can be exposed to a greater variety of different voices. And I would add that you don’t necessarily need to only imitate authors who are working in the same genre as you.
You could be a fantasy author who loves the voice of Arthur Conan Doyle or a mystery writer who loves J. R. R. Tolkien. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s voice and often borrow his writing techniques as I shared in this post, even though I have no intention of writing about the jazz age.
Remember, though, that as Bradbury writes above, the imitation phase is just a stepping-stone to finding your own voice. Like Hart, Bradbury also encourages writers to relax and tells them to put up three signs in their work place: “Work”, “Relaxation”, “Don’t think.” He observes,
The writer who wants to tap the larger truth in himself…must ask himself, ‘What do I really think of the world, what do I love, fear, hate?’ and begin to pour this on paper…Then, through the emotions, working steadily, over a long period of time, his writing will clarify; he will relax because he thinks right and he will think even righter because he relaxes. The two will become interchangeable. At last he will begin to see himself…
What are we trying to uncover in this flow? The one person irreplaceable to the world, of which there is no duplicate. You. As there was only one Shakespeare, Molière, Dr. Johnson, so you are that precious commodity…
What do you think of the world? You, the prism, measure the light of the world; it burns through your mind to throw a different spectroscopic reading onto white paper than anyone else anywhere can throw.
In order to find your writing voice, you will eventually need to break away from imitation and explore the deeper parts of your subconscious. You need to discover who you truly are and what you want to say. To do this, you need to be courageous and confront your fears about what others will think about your writing.
And that leads into Marion Roach’s “honesty” method.
4. Marion Roach’s “Honesty” Method
Several years ago, I wrote this review of Marion Roach’s fantastic writing craft book The Memoir Project. She illustrates all of her writing advice with captivating stories, recounting her experiences writing for The New York Times and NPR and her struggle to pen a memoir about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
In her book, she talks briefly about finding your writing voice, but, in an article on her website, she dove deeper into this topic. Roach writes,
Your writing voice is something that needs first to be found, then deeply felt, then used to express who you are to the public…The bridge from here to there — from not having a writing voice to having one — is crossed when you confront your fear of being heard for who you really are…Who are you when you write? How is that communicated to the reading public? How much fear are you willing to confront to truly sound like you?
Those are questions I want you to ponder. Because finding and valuing your writing voice is all about honesty, meaning that the road home is all about shedding your dishonesty. And the route from one to the other, of course, is blocked by nothing more or less than fear. Are you ready to make that move?
Here is what a wise friend said to me recently on the topic of creativity and voice. It’s what got me thinking about this. I give it to you here since it’s not mine to keep. She said this:
‘We are only dishonest when we are afraid.’
To begin confronting your fears, you first need to identify them. Follow Bradbury’s method and answer his questions: “What do I really think of the world, what do I love, fear, hate?” Start writing about that.
If you still feel intimidated to write with honesty and share your deepest beliefs, Damon Knight’s “persona” method can help you build confidence.
5. Damon Knight’s “Persona” Method
Damon Knight, an award-winning science fiction author, shared clear, no-nonsense fiction writing and general writing advice in his helpful book Creating Short Fiction.
While re-reading the book recently, I came across this interesting exercise he used to find his writing voice:
Voice is the distinctive pattern that makes a writer’s work recognizable. It is not, as a rule, the same pattern that the author uses in speaking, although it may give that impression. More often, it is the characteristic voice of the writer’s persona.
When I was about thirty I experienced a sort of leap of confidence and capability; I was writing much more freely and productively, and I was writing much better than I ever had before. After a while I realized what I had done: I had invented an imaginary writer to write my stories for me, someone who was much more mature, more skilled, more inventive, and more knowledgeable than I was. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that other people knew about this and that there was a name for it: persona, which is Greek for ‘mask’— the sort of mask that Greek actors wore, putting on a role and a head at the same time.
Since then I have found myself adopting new personas several times: once when I began writing critical essays, for instance, and again when I wrote the text of this book…
You may well ask, how can you invent a writer who can write better than you do? It would be a sophistry for me to reply with another question, such as, how can you invent a character who does things you have never done?
I don’t know if you will like this any better, but I am about half convinced that when you use a persona you are drawing on the ability you will develop much later — borrowing against future earnings. The other half of the time I think this is nonsense and that what you are doing when you call up a persona to write for you is just to make a greater demand on the creative powers of your unconscious.
Another way to look at it is this: Suppose that in the course of a long story you find that you need to include a passage from an imaginary work by one of the characters in the story. Obviously that passage must be written by a different persona, because the character is not you. If you can do that in a brief excerpt, why not in a whole story?
This is a thought-provoking exercise that I’m excited to try out in a future writing session. In effect, it forces you to shed your writing fears, slay imposter syndrome, and pretend to be a more confident and experienced writer.
It reminds me of this piece of advice from Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech,
Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.
Ultimately, there is no quick and easy method to finding your writing voice. It is a long process that requires dedication to your craft.
Initially, you will have to put in the work to sharpen your skills, develop your style, and gain experience. Then you will need to overcome your fears and dive deeper into yourself. Discover who you truly are and what you truly believe.
Once you reach that point, you will be able to powerfully communicate your unique message to the world.
So relax. Experiment and play with your style. Write with passion. And let your personality and honesty shine through on the page.
Meg Rosoff advises,
Stop thinking about your voice. Think about your life instead. Live. Take risks. Seek wisdom. Confront the unconfrontable. Find out who you are. Let your voice gain power as you go.
Thanks for reading! I hope this blog post inspires you. Which is your favorite method? Let me know in the comments.
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