Developing your writer’s voice requires you to know yourself and reveal that self in your writing: this is who I am and this is what I care most about.
To develop your voice you must investigate and own your singular way of noticing your world, and then practice and hone your singular way of capturing that noticing. You must step away from other people’s opinions and stories, from what you may think you should sound like, and get curious about your opinions, your stories, your experiences.
Avoid doing this work and you may well find your writing stalls out and begins to feel flat, even pointless. Turn toward developing your voice and you may find big dividends: more flow and energy, more readers, more publishing and other opportunities, and most of all, more sincere and satisfying work.
So how do you get your voice development cooking? Here are five time-tested ideas you may find useful.
1. Be Devoted to Paying Attention
Cartoonist, podcaster, and teacher Jessica Abel advises her students to “Pay attention to what you pay attention to,” while Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett said, “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”
What lights you up? What drives you batty? What problem do you have a solution for? What images compel you? What sentence structures make your heart zing? What words do you love—or hate?
All of these can be sources of your voice, but you must pay exquisite attention to them or they poof! disappear. Cultivate noticing what you notice, noting it, and valuing it even though it makes no sense (yet). Make space to these clues by taking a sabbatical from social media and Netflix (just an evening works wonders). Boredom and silence are your voice’s ally as you recognize and heed what captures your mind and heart.
2. Show Your Mistakes
Your voice won’t fully mature if you edit as you write. One of my writing retreat participants, Erin, said:
“My writing process hinged on editing. I wanted to say things perfectly, compulsively. My creative process consisted of a flash of inspiration and then the editing of that flash of inspiration repeatedly and compulsively until I was bored and it was boring. The hard work for me is to write through the bad.”
Try generating new material without deleting as you go. Leave a string of your not-quite-right words and ideas. What happens if you erase your first inkling? You interrupt the flow that will soon lead you to what you really want to say. Tidying as you go cuts off your process. Learn to tolerate seeing the mess so your voice has room to grow and permission to show itself.
3. Focus on Your Reader—or Not
Having one specific reader in mind can be a tremendous way to focus your work. For example, writing this post, I have a writing student in mind who’s struggling with bland writing because she’s hampered by too much writing advice. She’s helping me focus on the most salient ideas rather than skittering all over the place. However, if I think about you, a reader I don’t know, I freeze up, thinking, What should I write?
Each project invites you to decide when to have a reader in mind. If you’re writing an article for LinkedIn Pulse about ways to deal with a difficult but valuable employee, it might be a huge time saver to imagine your friend who works in HR. But if you find yourself editing, parsing words, shying away from the more complex or messy thoughts because your reader is looming over you, put her out of the room—for now. Bring your reader in on the second or even third draft. Sometimes your voice needs some privacy to reveal itself.
4. Feed Your Envy
The poet Billy Collins spoke at the White House Poetry Student Workshop about how to find your voice. He believes you must “Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous.”
Then he suggests you key into these poets, mimicking the ones you admire until their influences weave and combine into something new: your voice.
I agree with Mr. Collins, but only if you combine this kind of reading and copying with being devoted to paying attention. You need inner and outer influences to support your voice’s development.
Here are two specific ways to use envy to strengthen your voice:
- When you read something that makes you want to give up writing because it’s so damn good and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to make that kind of magic, write out the passage you love in longhand—it takes longer and you learn more by doing so. Then ask yourself, “Why do I love this so much?” Discuss with a writer friend. Be prepared to struggle mightily to understand why. Bonus: do this with a piece of writing you hate—sometimes even more illuminating.
- Create a lexicon for a specific project. If you’re writing a novel set in the southwest desert, gather plant names, geologic formations, types of clouds. Search poetry, history, guide books, and novels. Write down only what attracts you. This is nourishment for your voice and your project! (Hat tip to Seattle writing teacher Priscilla Long for this idea.)
5. Read Aloud
You can’t recognize and then strengthen your voice if you don’t hear it—and hearing it in your head isn’t the same as hearing it spoken aloud. Get in the habit of reading what you write out loud. I print and read everything before I send something out and also whenever I’m feeling all snarled up in my organization.
Want to accelerate your voice development? Read out loud to another person without any feedback. This is utterly maddening to your inner approval junkie: “But what does she think about my writing?!?” The magic comes because you turn toward yourself and listen for where you are being true to what you wanted to say and where you’re skirting the truth, where you dug deep and where you skimmed the surface, settling for clichés. Of course, there are plenty of times when getting specific feedback from other writers is useful—but not when it comes to honing your voice.
Which of these ideas will you try out in your next writing session? Choose one idea from this post to put into action in the next twenty-four hours, then come back here and tell me what you discovered.
Claiming and sharing your voice will challenge you. You may feel resistance and fear because you’re leaving known territory. Plus, it’s more work! But your writing will be truer, will affect your reader more deeply, and you’ll be more satisfied with the process, and perhaps even the result. It may well require more of you than you could imagine (I know it does me) but when I make the effort, I end a writing session tired but oh so much more satisfied.
May you give voice to the ideas and stories that only you can write.