By: Marilyn L. Davis
“I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.” Kurt Vonnegut
What is a Writer’s Voice?
Voice is that distinct way that we write doesn’t come naturally to most of us for several reasons. Some of us are afraid that our writing isn’t good enough, others are trying too hard to imitate their favorite author, and still others can’t write a sentence without editing, revising, and losing their one-of-a-kind perspective on the topic.
In the beginning, we labor over the words and then quickly check the Thesaurus for an even better word, or we’re distracted by spelling and punctuation prompts, or we’re afraid our topic is already saturated, and we have nothing new to offer. By that time, most of us have forgotten our topic.
Oh, right, I’m on the topic of voice.
So how does someone begin to find a personal voice? They practice writing in what I refer to as the early writer phase, the pretentious writer syndrome, and evolve finally into the confident writer. See, I’ve been all three. And I would imagine if you’re honest, you have been them, too.
The Newbie Writer’s Voice
I can remember waking up and having an idea, maybe just three or four words that sparked interest. Then I’d spend umpteen hours researching the topic.
When I was finally saturated with facts, opinions, and other people’s perception of the topic, I’d sit down and try to write about the topic in my words, and most times, it came across as stilted, long-winded, cumbersome, and false.
It wasn’t me. But it did get me in the habit of writing.
The Pretentious Writer’s Voice
Taking that same idea, I’d decide that a particular word just wasn’t impressive enough, and I’d change it. Or, I’d write a passive sentence and then labor over finding a way to make it powerful and present; sometimes changing the meaning or context of the passage.
Sometimes I’d write extremely long paragraphs, full of phrases and rambling prose that only inched towards the point, complete with enough adjective and adverb descriptors to make even me wonder when we would get to the conclusion.
But the most pretentious thing I did was try to sound like famous authors.
The Confident Writer’s Voice
I’ve written a 400,000-word recovery curriculum and noticed that I didn’t think about what I was writing; it was as if the words simply went from brain to fingers through some unknown connection. I was visiting my sister and writing some sections while she was on the phone. When she finished her conversation, she commented that it didn’t appear that I was struggling with any portion of the content.
I stopped and thought about it and realized that because the subjects of addiction and recovery were so familiar to me, I didn’t have to agonize over each word, they simply flowed onto the page.
It was that familiarity with the topic that allowed me to find my unique voice for the curriculum.
Fast forward to writing at Two Drops of Ink, where initially, I had zero confidence in my ability to write about writing. I didn’t have the same level of assurance that I could string together sentences and help people write better like I did on the subject of recovery.
The Comfortable Writer’s Voice
And it’s that level of comfort that allows us to write words in our voice, not worrying that we don’t sound as knowledgeable as the next writer on any topic because knowledge is not enough. If it were solely about knowledge, no one would bother to have a blog about writing; we would just list the great books on the subject and be done.
So, if it’s not just knowledge, then what else is it? We’re back to voice; that unique way in which you view your subject and translate that into words for an audience. It’s your understanding of the how, when, why, who and where that conveys a distinctive point of view or produces a different sounding approach. It’s in the subtle use of words and phrases that mark a post as mine, just as your choice of words and phrases will make people recognize your writing.
For instance, I knew that I didn’t want to be just an educator in my recovery curriculum. I wanted people to understand that I had been where they were, had made changes and had created a better life. It was important that I be encouraging but serious; however, I did not want to be preachy or pedantic about what people needed to do to accomplish change. Finding that mid-ground between expert by book and expert by experience was part of the way I found my voice.
I wanted the directions on recovery to express hope. I wanted to give people working plans on how to recover and demonstrate the possibilities and opportunities for life in recovery versus life in addiction. I wanted to help them find their strengths and talents and tap into their potential to be a better person. Clearly, with these objectives in mind, my messages and directions needed to be interesting, informative, and correct. They also needed to be short, snappy, and succinct.
Just as importantly, I wanted to tell the truth about the damage I had inflicted on people in my use and how I overcame the guilt by changing and making amends. And it’s in those candid moments that the images in our heads create an image for the reader.
In the end, our most authentic voice comes through when we are honest.
How you develop your voice is as simple and as hard as sitting down and writing the words that come naturally to you. Free-writing is a good beginning; where you don’t worry about punctuation, grammar or syntax and simply get the words on paper.
Begin with a topic you are passionate about and just write. When you are comfortable with the topic, the thoughts, feelings and opinions are already established in your head, and it’s a simple task to get them to paper.
Don’t worry about misspelled words, just ignore them, or better yet, turn off any notices. If you must stop to collect your thoughts, don’t go back and start editing or revising. Don’t check your facts at this point. Don’t look for supporting links. This is an exercise in getting as many words on paper as you can about the given topic, although you can time yourself and only write for 10 to 30 minutes.
The next part of finding your voice is to hear it read aloud.
Are you stumbling? Are there words in the text that you don’t normally use? Does it read honest? Does it convey your attitude about the topic? Does it sound like you and reflect the way you would give this as a “talk”?
It’s when we are unfamiliar with a topic or unsure about our writing that we labor. The beauty of niche writing or creating your blog is that you decide the topics you’re going to include. With that kind of freedom, there’s no reason that you can’t find your distinctive voice.
“The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”
― Anaïs Nin
And mine, well, I think I’ve found it, and maybe, just maybe, that’s why that Vonnegut quote speaks to me. After all, I’m from Indianapolis, too.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing