In setting out to become a writer, you must strive, above all, to discover your unique voice. At least, that’s become the conventional wisdom, taught in MFA programs as well as in more casual settings, from writers group meetings at Starbucks to free classes taught in the stuffy backroom of your local library. Yet there is so much wrong with this advice that, if you spend even one full minute giving it serious thought, your eyes will roll heaven-ward all on their own like Where even to begin?
Still, we must begin somewhere, so here goes.
How can you know what your tone will be when you don’t yet know what your topic is?
Where exactly do we think voice comes from if not from subject?
Which is the right cart and which is the right horse?
Sure, your unique sensibility may account for a large part of your hot takes, but would you write about muffins and genocide the same way, or Fords and fjords? And are we really so sure that voice trumps all other aspects of a piece of writing?
Finally, who is responsible for advancing this damnable, now-inescapable sick logic, and what is their address, because I’m thinking I might like to T.P. their house?
Maybe that seems a tad aggressive. But you have to consider the real damage this advice has wrought. All over the world, people’s drawers bulge with unpublishable novels, essays collections and memoirs in which there’s plenty of voice, yet no story, no real through-line, no sense of one’s audience beyond the assumption that they’re there. That’s the problem. This overemphasis on voice puts the focus on the writer and what they want to say and how they want to say it, ignoring more pertinent questions. Namely, considering how there’s Mare of Easttown to binge on HBO, why should anyone spend hours poring over your writing instead?
It also ignores the credentialism involved with the few novels and works of nonfiction that get acquired, more or less, because of voice alone. Publishers are a lot less apt to value your unique voice if that voice doesn’t come with degrees from Harvard or Iowa, or if you’re not reading this article while lounging on the terrace at Yaddo. It’s just a fact. There are exceptions, of course. The overall picture is, however, about as clear as any close-up of Kate Winslet, though not as pretty.
I rant like this from firsthand experience, from the wish I could time-travel back about 15 years and tell myself all this. My own writing breakthrough, the one that got me a book deal after a dozen years of trying, came from focusing on topic ahead of voice. Your writing struggles and goals may well be different. You are probably miles ahead of me, much less dense and much quicker to learn. But considering the prevalence of the conventional wisdom, let’s turn it on its head a minute.
What if you were to put the primary focus on your topic?
It might just help you land a book deal, climb some lofty bestseller list, scale those Everest-like Amazon ranks—and what’s more, the process is simple, no matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
- Pick a topic that fascinates you, or learn about a topic until it fascinates you.
- Lead with research. Google your subject to see what’s out there. Begin to gain a sense of whether an audience already exists.
- Bring that topic to the world.
This strategy can lead to more interesting writing, and interesting is what you need to be, considering you and I and everyone else we know are all working inside a full-fledged, entertain-or-GTFO attention economy. Few of us occupy such exalted positions that we can take audience for granted. This is all the more true if your goal is to eventually sell a book—again, fiction or nonfiction—because first you must prove to agents and acquisition editors that there’s a crowd of people eager to pay for it.
Your topic could, for example, take any of the following forms:
- Things that interested you as a child
- Ideas you can’t get out of your head
- Places that have become your personal obsessions
- Or some such B.S.: weird jobs, strange headlines, cultural trends, etc.
And your audience may pop up in such places as:
- Facebook fan groups dedicated to your subject
- Publications and other outlets (from podcasts to YouTube channels) dedicated to your subject
- Reddit boards about your topic
- Other writers who’ve covered this same subject, plus their audiences.
That’s to name just a few potential sources. The crucial thing about the exercise is that you start to accrue some data. You begin to think in terms of appropriate comps, i.e. other works like your potential work that have found an audience, maybe even seen some substantial success. Another benefit: You may also connect with a community devoted to your topic, which can help you lead a less lonely writer-ly existence, and maybe help you build a platform, too, once you start contributing to that community.
We could spend all day arguing about the reasons the emphasis on voice persists—how it’s easier to teach writing at the sentence level than at the story level, and how most people in a position to teach classes—especially college classes—come from prestigious backgrounds, the kind that encourages the New Yorker to pile praise atop their supposedly transcendent prose, never mind if the novel is meandering or the essays are kinda pretentious, kinda boring. The rest of us are unlikely to be given such leeway.
The good news is this lack of leeway can become a strength for you and me, rather than a weakness. Embrace it, and you might just grow into a more competent, entertaining writer. Most readers don’t give a crap about fancy prose—it’s far from their foremost concern. This has been true since humans were telling stories in caves, and it’s even more true today, when you as a writer aren’t just competing with literal Neanderthals but the best TV ever made, as well as Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and millions of already-published books. So, topic over voice, friend! Content > tone! Subject ahead of approach!
Besides, when you get your topic right, all your obsessive weirdness comes to the fore, starting to work for you for once. You enter flow, and suddenly, the awful pain of writing drops away. You fly, weightless, freed for a GD moment from the grind, and the prose pours out of you, your voice just showing up on the page like some welcome, expected guest, or like a free dessert. It’s freaking magic. Or at least worth trying, anyway.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, is forthcoming from Hachette in September 2021. She writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here, or say “Hi!” on Twitter.