Finding your voice as a writer doesn't have to be a mystery, but it seems to always be treated that way. To demystify the process, I've broken it down into four practical steps.
Everyone has a different angle on it.
“Find your voice!”
“Don’t find your voice!”
“Your voice will find you!”
“Forget you ever had a voice!”
And yet, after reading and reading and reading everyone’s opinions about voice, I still feel confused. Everybody tries to put a twist on it instead of just tackling the question head-on: What is my voice and how do I find it?
All of our favorite authors have a voice. You can recognize any of these writers merely by the way they sound: A.A. Milne, Frank E. Peretti, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Reeve.
They each choose words in a way unique to them. They each have quirks and mannerisms that give their stories a specific style.
So how do you find yours?
Well, I am going to attempt to answer one of the biggest questions ever asked by new authors. Forgive my audacity.
1. Become a Voracious Reader
One of the strangest temptations for a busy writer is to abandon reading. It doesn’t seem like you would ever stop reading, right? I mean, you’re an author because you love to read so much! Why would you leave behind the same habit that started you on this path?
But once you start writing, something happens to you. Suddenly you’re setting word count goals. Burying yourself in reams of plot papers and scene cards. Learning how to market. Attending webinars. Networking. Blogging. Designing. Emailing. And spending every spare second stabbing at a keyboard …
All the while, you promise yourself that one day you’ll finally read the paperbacks turning into petrified wood on your nightstand.
It’s time to change that.
Go to the library or—better yet—the bookstore. Look for books similar to the ones you want to write. Even more important, look for the best books by the best authors—there’s a time and place for checking out second-rate books, but not now.
Don’t leave until you have an armful of novels and a check-out receipt dangling out of your pocket like a paper tail.
Now—plop into your reading chair, curl up your feet, and get lost.
Well, you can finish this blog post first. But then.
Promise yourself that you will become a voracious reader. Dedicate time to it. Artists improve their own work by studying the masters—and so do writers. You are what you read.
With every book you read, as that stack on the shelf shrinks shorter and shorter, you will begin to develop a voice. Even if you haven’t written a word in a week. Your mind and soul will learn to speak the language of literature more fluently.
Don’t worry if your writing starts to sound like a bad imitation of your favorite author. It’s a necessary step in the process. The best artists always start by copying the veterans before their own style breaks through. You will find that after copying the legends for a while, your individual taste will emerge.
What if you want to learn how to write with a gilded quill, so to speak? How do you cultivate a beautiful writing voice with a certain style, flair?
Queue the next tip!
2. Write (and Read) Poetry
Poetry is like a multivitamin for your writing voice. In poetry, every word has to be chosen with precision. Too many words and the rhythm is lost. Too few words and the meaning is obscured.
If you aren’t accustomed to reading poetry, start with Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Shel Silverstein. Poetry is the fine oil painting of writing—every word is a brush stroke, portraying a breathtaking scene or an intimate moment. (Or, if you’re reading Shel Silverstein, just a weird word picture.)
Don’t forget to try free verse, while you’re at it. After all, you’re learning how to write prose—so experiment within a free verse poem. If you’re not familiar with free verse, I would suggest reading Carl Sandburg. He was a master of free verse, never concerned whether his stanzas rhymed or not, but rather whether his words portrayed the image that he saw.
3. Experiment with different styles in flash fiction
Practice is the best way to develop your writing voice. But, fortunately, it’s not necessary to write an armful of novels before your writing voice emerges.
Flash fiction is an extremely short story that uses the same pace, style, and feel of a full-length novel. Think of flash fiction like a page ripped out of a novel—except it tells a complete, brief story or moment. Flash fiction usually contains all the elements of a great book: action, dialogue, character development, prose … all in 2,000 words or less.
So how can you use flash fiction to develop your writing voice?
Since it’s so short, flash fiction is a great way to try something daring. If you’ve always wondered whether you would enjoy writing with the clipped, pithy voice of a homicide detective, now is your chance. Or experiment with flowing prose and rich wordsmithing. Or give a try at a dialogue-heavy story, with snappy banter and lines with double meanings. The more styles you try, the more your own preferences will come to light.
4. Refine your voice in the second draft
When a director makes a movie, he or she has to shoot all the scenes first before editing together the complete story. All of the raw footage is messy—chock-full of flubs, outtakes, unnecessary scenes, bad performances, unwanted footage, and entire clips of empty shots.
And out of this, the editor sculpts a tight, action-packed story that leaves audiences talking for weeks afterward. Everyone will talk about the film’s original style. The stunning plot points. The lovable characters.
The director’s style won’t be evident in the mess of raw footage, but once edited, it becomes clear.
When you write your story, the first draft will be like the director’s raw footage. You may not see your style anywhere in the grammar mistakes, pointless scenes, miss plot points, flavorless dialogue.
Here's a secret I've gleaned from countless authors: You don’t write with a voice—you edit with one.
You don't write with a voice—you edit with one.
Your voice will come through the edit.
Don’t flick through your first draft and wonder why your writing style doesn’t seem to be there.
Once you go through and cut it into the story that you envisioned all along, your voice will come through loud and clear. Your voice isn’t just the words you put in—it’s also the ones you leave out.
Your voice isn’t just the words you put in—it’s also the ones you leave out.
So don’t get frustrated if you don’t feel like your voice is evident while you’re writing the first draft. It isn’t. Your voice will only emerge when you return with a clear mind, fresh eyes, and a red pen.
I hope that was helpful! Do you feel like you have a clear voice established yet? Or are you still trying to get there?!