How to Discover Your Writing Voice in 5 Simple Steps
We recently talked about why your voice is SO important, now more than ever. Your voice is necessary and important, and it deserves to be heard.
But what if you don't know your voice? What if you don't know how you should say what you're trying to say? What if you're not sure if you even have a voice at all?
I'm with you, my friend.
When you came to writing, you didn't think about voice. You just wrote. You put words together and they added up to something. You wrote for the purpose of telling the story, not consciously thinking about making it unique and your own and true to you. You wrote to write.
Then, you read more and fell in love with authors whose voices you could pick out in a crowd. You wished you were them. You wished you could write like them. And, likely, you did. Their stylistic quirks imprinted on you and were regurgitated back out in your writing. (I can easily pick out my "George Saunders Story" and my "Junot Diaz Story," as these are two of my strongest influences and I wrote unconsciously attempting to be them). You look back and wonder if you have a voice at all.
And then you feel the pressures of society. You feel like you should write certain ways, based on what styles of stories are popular. You feel like you should write about certain things, based on what types of books are popular. You're told that you should have this amazing and unique and special voice that makes you distinctly you.
But who is this "you" and what is her amazing and unique and special voice? And how does she find it?
You demand that your writing voice reveal itself to you immediately. You try to write like yourself (whatever that means). Your words end up feeling artificial. You try harder. You pressure your writing to be authentically you. You pressure your voice to come out. It doesn't. And so, you end up wondering what your voice is, where it is. You wonder if you have a voice at all.
(If you haven't noticed, this hypothetical "you" is actually me. And I'm working through this highly frustrating Voice-Discovery Phase in my own writing life right now).
But, the truth bomb, you already have a writing voice. You always have.
When you're trying to discover your unique and special writing voice, you can't demand that it reveal itself to you. You also can't just reach your fingers out and grasp at the air hoping to catch it. You have to know what you're reaching for, and you have to let it come to you. Quit grabbing fistfulls of air, and be deliberate with the voice you're seeking. And accept that it's already all around you (it's the air you breathe, the air you live in, to continue this metaphor); you just have to open your eyes and see it.
The question isn't, "do you have a voice?" but "do you know it?"
You already have a voice, you just have to reclaim it. You can learn more about it, and you can hone it to make it better, but you've already got one. So let's work to rediscover your writing voice, strengthen it, and be conscious and confident with it in your writing.
How to Discover Your WRITING voice:
1 | know who you are and what you stand for
A Real+Good place to start is knowing your Writer's DNA. This is who you are at the core of yourself as both writer and human. This is what you love, what you believe in, what you're inspired by, what you're influenced by, what you fear. This is who you are. Knowing this will help you uncover what you're trying to say and how best to say it.
How does your DNA influence your voice? Look at this example:
If you grew up in farm country with cattle and you frequently went hunting and your family vacations were camping trips and your first vehicle was a '97 red pickup and the right to own a gun is a strong belief of yours, your voice is going to reflect that.
If you grew up in the city and your best friend overdosed on heroin and you don't think you've ever seen a groundhog and your first vehicle was riding the bus and enhancing public education is a strong passion of yours, your voice is going to reflect that.
Those two voices are going to be drastically different from each other.
The way you speak, the style you naturally use, the words you choose, the structure of your sentences, the dialect and pacing and vocabulary is dependent on where you're from, what you think, and what you've experienced. It all comes from who you are, your DNA.
So, who are you? Where are you from? What do you think? What's important to you? What makes you, you?
ACTION: KNOW YOUR WRITER'S DNA. The first step to discovering your voice is knowing your DNA. Get started with your Writer's DNA right now!
2 | Know what you want your voice to be like
You may be hoping to find your voice, but you DO already have one. You can work to define it, but you should also work to refine it. Consider what your voice is AND what you want it to be. You have an idea of who you are, now you have to hone your voice to align with that idea.
Create a list of what you want your voice to be like. These could be stylistic elements, tone, impact. This is your ideal voice. This is what you're working towards.
Here's a snapshot of some things on my list:
- Poetic, observant, beautiful and elaborate descriptions (I know I tend to be wordy, so I'd at least like to be purposeful with my length)
- Surprising, quirky
- Eager, quick-paced (because I talk a mile-a-minute while simultaneously being overly descriptive)
- Reflective through indirectness
- Emotional, passionate
- Occasionally funny
- Full of parenthetical asides (because this is how I think (Have you noticed?))
What you're looking to create here is a list of traits that reveal your voice to you and help you reclaim it even when it seems lost. This is a bit of dreamy and hopeful of what you want your voice to be like (i.e. I have to work to be quick-paced) while also being reflective to how your voice already is (i.e. I naturally speak and write long, descriptive, wordy, over-elaborate sentences, and I have to accept that).
This list will help me recognize when I've been speaking in my unique voice, when I've drifted away from it, and how to sound more like myself.
It's also a good list to hold up next to a piece of my writing and examine if I've written my voice or not. If I can see that I haven't been writing like myself and how I want to write, I have a direct vision of how exactly to fix it.
ACTION: MAKE A LIST OF HOW YOUR VOICE IS AND HOW YOU WANT IT TO BE. What's on your list? Why? How can you work towards getting back to your true voice? How can you write towards being more you?
3 | Consider the writers who have prominently influenced your voice
Your voice didn't come out of nowhere. It's been influenced by your parents, your friends, your coworkers, the people you've interacted with. Pay attention to the little pieces you've pulled from them – vocabulary, structure, pacing.
As a writer, it's been heavily influenced by other writers whose work you think is gold. These are the writers who are so good they make you want to give up writing completely. These are the writers who make you jealous. These are the writers you wish you could be. These are the voices that seep into and influence your own voice.
You know the writers I'm talking about?
You should already be studying their writing, thinking about how they do what they do, and why you like it so much. But also consider how they're influencing your own voice. What is it that they're teaching you? How are they contributing to your unique voice?
Create a list of your influential writers and how they're affecting you. Here's a snapshot of my own list:
- The parenthetical comments of George Saunders
- The indirectness of Joy Katz
- The snarky, vulgarness of Junot Diaz (and perhaps his use of footnotes)
- The flowery, long-winded, wordiness of too many people to count
- The wordplay of Lemony Snicket (a recent discovery of influence after watching the new Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix!)
ACTION: LIST YOUR INFLUENTIAL WRITERS AND HOW THEY AFFECT YOU. Who has made a difference in your writing life? Whose voice resonates with you? Whose voice makes you wish you'd wrote it? How can you borrow from them in refining your own voice?
4 | The Jerry Jenkins Technique
The amazing Jerry Jenkins has one simple exercise to reveal your writing voice to you. It's easy. It's natural. And you'll see your voice immediately.
Jerry says you see your voice when you combine these three ingredients together:
- THE COOLEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO YOU
- THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON YOU TOLD ABOUT IT
- WHAT YOU SOUNDED LIKE
When you are too full of passion and excitement to plan your words and you end up just info-dumping everything you possibly think at once, your voice is going to emerge.
When you aren't pressured to sound professional or nice or firm or whatever any other conversation dictates you to sound like, and you're SUPER comfortable talking to and revealing yourself to this VIP, your voice will just come out. It's effortless. It's unconscious.
You've just got to listen to what you sound like.
ACTION: LISTEN TO YOURSELF TELL THE MOST IMPORTANT STORY TO THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON. What is this story and how does it define you as a human? Why is it so important? What was your sentence structure like? Your tone? Your pacing? What vocabulary did you use? Were there any recurring words? And who was this person you told? Why are they important? How does your unique voice compare to theirs?
5| Write, write, write!
Most importantly, the act of writing itself can help you discover your voice. Your voice will naturally emerge on the page. You can do this in a variety of ways, consciously or not!
ACTION: TRY OUT DIFFERENT VOICES AND FIND SIMILARITIES. Try writing as characters similar to you. Try writing as characters opposite of you. Try writing in first-person, third-person, and even second-person. Find the consistencies in your voice that show up again and again and again in your word choice, your sentence structure, your pacing.
ACTION: TRY STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS EXERCISES. These will get you writing quickly and without the pressure of your internal editor. Take 10 minutes and just put the pen to paper. Don't censor, don't edit, don't think, don't analyze. DON'T seek your voice. Just write, write, write, nonstop. Do this frequently to get to know your voice and practice getting it out.
ACTION: KEEP A DIARY. Write with all that emotion and passion and fury and love that happens on a day-to-day basis. Speak your truths to yourself. Record the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. Ask questions, explore deep train-of-thoughts, get lost in your own head. (This is kind of like Jerry's technique, but where you are the most important person!).
ACTION: GIVE IT SOME TIME. Your voice isn't going to magically appear overnight, but it will become more and more distinct the more you write and the more you let it grow. Quit worrying about finding it, and analyzing if it's right – just accept your voice as it is and let it out! Just write the stories you feel like writing, edit them to your standards, and send them out into the world. Your voice will be there.
As a writer, your voice is your most powerful tool. You should know it and you should work to continue refining it. But don't let the desire of knowing your voice outweigh the need to tell your stories. Tell the stories you need to tell. Write the way you need to write. Your voice is already there with you.