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 we write. When we first start writing, our voice 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 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.
Looking for the Voice
So how does someone begin to find a personal voice? They practice writing in what I refer to as the 4 Voices:
- Newbie Writer
- Pretentious Writer
- Confident Writer
- Comfortable Writer
I know these because I’ve been all four. And I would imagine if you’re honest, you have been one or more of 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 subject 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 robust and in the present tense; 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.
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 the brain to fingers through some unknown connection.
I was visiting my sister and updating the images and phrasing on 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
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 expertise, 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.
Claiming Your Voice
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.
I wanted the directions on recovery to express hope, and give people working plans on how to recover and demonstrate the possibilities and opportunities for life in recovery versus life in addiction. I hoped that my writing helped 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 a vision for the reader.
In the end, our most authentic voice comes through when we are honest.
Finding the Words and Voice
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 familiar with the subject, 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 usually use?
- Does it read honest?
Did you 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.
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