Other than my perennial writing goal of getting more words on paper in 2018, my other major writing goal for the year is to spend time and conscious practice on developing my writer’s voice. I’ve found that my social anxiety, introversion, and loquaciousness has always been a limit to my creative expression.
A writer’s voice is a large part of what draws readers into a writer’s stories. Voice is different than the ‘voice’ you’re thinking of. In fact, one’s writing voice looks and sounds significantly different from one’s spoken voice. Written voice is, by nature, more brief. We speak in fragments of sentences, thought, and emotion. Howe many times have you been speaking with a friend and not been able to recall a specific, more accurate word? When you’re sitting in front of a blank page or a blinking cursor things seem less urgent. You’ve got time to consider, to the cut the fluff and keep the message as clear as possible. Flowery language is something, but it is nothing when removed from the context of what you’re actually trying to convey.
Written voice is also typically more sensory, more emotional — the distance the page provides gives writers clarity to express emotion without the blindness of passion. I think the most obvious example of this fact is the suspicious lack of profanity in great novels — especially considering the stereotypically utterly desperate lives of so many of us writer types.
People ramble. A great conversation is akin to a full brain defrag, jumping from topic to topic with such fluidity that no one can recall quite how you got there. A good story? Article? Blog post? Not so much. When you speak, you sort of have a captive audience. If I’m droning on and on, you can close this tab at any time. Word choice and a clear point matter. Fewer words and meticulous word choice turns your voice into something fluid and babbling out loud to something rather different on the page.
I don’t know where I got it from. I can’t think of a particular book that sparked the flame of love in me for unnecessarily long sentences. I have a longstanding love/hate relationship with Hemingway’s writing. I always blame his sentences. Is sentence length a scapegoat for the man’s misogyny? The world may never know. Sentence length actually does have a surprisingly impactful effect on how a reader takes in a text. Most people prefer variety. Unfortunately for me, though, most people hate commas and don’t even know what an em-dash is.
Voice is what ensures that a reader reads your stuff instead of the thousands of pages of content out there written by not-you. You’ve gotta have it, that thing that makes you somewhat more readable than them. It is the difference between a witty millennial blogger and the author of pretty much any textbook imaginable. It is the difference between a writer at NPR and a writer at Breitbart — publications known for being somehow homogenous unto themselves but so graphically different from the rest of the field.
So how should you — and, to reach my goal, how shall I — develop your own unique writer’s voice that allows you to express yourself and reach your audience at the same time? I’ve discovered a few strategies in my research so far that I am working to implement.
- Find You: In any kind of formal writing training from standard public school education to any college degree in the humanities or social sciences to writing specific programs, you are expected to write in a fairly neutral tone in a topic of someone else’s choosing. Sure, you’re the one who signed up for that class on the Faust myth, but the Faust myth is not what drives you to write. The Faust myth doesn’t set a fire in your soul the way something you’re passionate about does.
- Practice Mindfulness: While you’re out there writing your heart out with topics you love — or don’t, try to take a step back and notice your voice as it develops. What parts of it do you enjoy reading? What parts do you dislike? Of course, this kind of objective reading can only work if you are reading constantly and asking those same questions of other writers as well. Which brings us to…
- Read Constantly — And Mindfully: You probably do this anyway. I feel like we read more than ever how that we’ve got the Internet. We read different things now, to be sure, but we are always reading. It is always useful to take note — and I do literally mean that, of pieces of voice: turns of phrase, sentence structure, vocabulary choices, a particular point of view and so on. Create a list of beautiful observations you read and you might find that you become aware of yourself coming up with them more frequently.
- Read Writers with Strong Voices: What do Charles Dickens, Marcus Zusak, Douglas Adams, Mark Twain, John Green, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou, and Jodi Picoult have in common? They are widely beloved writers with strong and very famous voices.
It’s ironic on some level that the vast majority of stable jobs in the writing field discourage voice (copywriting, dry textbook writing, etc.). Voice is what makes us want to read writing. How will you work to develop your voice this year?