Finding Your Voice, pt. 2

Last week, we talked about why you want to find your writing voice. This week I wanted to talk about the parts of it and how you find it.

composition of various sour sweets and dragees make up face of screaming person
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What makes up your voice?

Your voice is an amalgamation of many different factors, and understanding each one will help to determine how you want your voice to sound if you are creating a new one. It will also assist in refining your natural voice once you’ve found it.

Vocabulary 

words in dictionary
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Faulkner once said of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” In response, Hemingway said, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

I’m not condemning big or little words here. Reading pieces that cause me to learn new words is challenging and satisfying. Reading pieces with simpler language is engaging and relaxing. These are simply two different ways of approaching your writing. 

On top of if you use big words is also a question of how often you use them, too. While you can use them as often as you like, I would keep your audience in mind. If you are a walking thesaurus and your audience is second graders, you might lose your readers. 

Formal vs. casual

An article from Masterclass.com talks about making the decision on how to fashion your sentences and choose your words. This blends in with the first point and the next point, but it’s worth having a mention in between. Are you going to write in a formal, rules-adhering style or in a casual, colloquial manner? Will you make sure to never have a preposition at the end of a sentence, no matter what? Are you going to pepper your writing with Southernisms or slang? 

Length

How long are your sentences going to be? Will you write long, descriptive, flowing prose designed to titillate the senses of the reader, or will you be concise? Are you going to stick to writing novels or flash fiction? Essays or dissertations? Or, alternatively, will you write everything in between? 

How personal will you be?

Writing has many different purposes, but not all of them have to stay separate. You could write pieces that are specifically for expressing yourself and then other pieces specifically for informing your readers about something. You could only write one or the other, or more commonly, you could write both at the same time. Tell personal stories that relate back to the topic of the article. Express yourself and your thoughts with a bit of useful information snuck in occasionally. This isn’t directly related to voice, but is an important consideration for style.

Flow and rhythm

cheerful elderly man listening to music in headphones
This guy gets it.
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Henneke from Enchanting Marketing suggests adding rhythm to your writing to make your voice distinct. And, while I personally wouldn’t recommend adding things to find your natural voice, it’s a great thing to keep in mind when constructing a new voice. This doesn’t mean you have to write poetry, either. Just keep in mind the way that your words and sentences flow together. Read poetry or a very “lyrical” piece of prose (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) out loud and then an instruction manual for your fridge and spot the differences in sound.

Description vs. action vs. dialogue

The aforementioned Masterclass article suggested balancing your dialogue and description. This is another piece that I think would be great to play with when it comes to crafting an artificial voice. Some people write using a lot of description and others, like The Witcher’s Andrzej Sapkowski, can write entire scenes with only dialogue that somehow still has plenty of action.

Plot- vs. character-based stories

I will, of course, end up writing more about this. For the sake of a quick definition, however, plot-based stories are where everything happens to your protagonist and they react to it all. Character-based stories are where your protagonist goes out and finds adventure. There are a lot of opinions on these two methods, but that is not the focus of this article.

Point of view

Point of view can be taken in a technical manner: first, second, third person limited/omniscient, or you can look at it as incorporating experience into your writing or in the voice of the character narrating. Someone who knows everything about a situation will be able to describe the scene completely, and might not explain everything they mention. An outsider to a situation, however, may not notice important things, or be able to describe anything in a coherent manner.

Cultural influence/references

This is somewhat similar to the second point above: using your experiences. However, this might be including allusions or references to famous literary works or mythical characters/creatures. You might write a character who’s storytelling style is heavily influenced by the oral traditions of an indigenous culture, or the dark, cautionary style of Germanic fairy tales. 

Everything

Anything you write naturally is your style. Anything you decide to add to a narrator’s voice simply is their voice. Feel free to experiment with any of these and find other things to tinker with as well. 

How to find your voice (finally, right?)

seagulls on river embankment in city
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Please don’t look at the above list and feel overwhelmed. You do not have to use all of these consciously, and when you’re finding your own voice, you might want to steer clear of using any of them consciously at first. This is merely a list of things that you might want to think about when considering a voice or what might make one’s own voice unique. 

This next part reflects advice I found around the internet, followed up with my own thoughts on the matter.

Read

Reading is the second most common piece of advice I found online. I am not sure how reading other people’s work will allow you to find your own voice (which is specifically what I was researching), but it is definitely worth it to study how others can be distinct. Enough reading is also required to start to be able to spot cliches and ineffective methods of writing voice, such as poo’ly wri’en accents or ye olde difficulte too reede voyses. 

Describe yourself

This was also surprisingly common. Many writers suggested you write down adjectives to describe yourself, jot down thoughts on how you see yourself or how others see you, or ask others how they see you. 

I say “surprisingly common” though I don’t think it’s bad advice. It sounds like a great way to start to refine your voice once you’ve found it and to develop your personal brand. 

Write

This, of course, was the most commonly found advice. Write, write, write, write, write. 

Journaling can help you discover what it is you care about and what your ideals are. These are great for refining your voice and finding topics you will want to write about in the future. 

Emulating others, which was also suggested, is a more “hands-on” approach than reading, in that you feel what it’s like to write in different voices. How it is to resist your own natural voice, and may even help you understand your more natural voice through the process of elimination.

Experimentation gets you exercising your creative muscles, coming up with different voices on your own. 

Try combining all of these different options: emulate a distinctive style, then try writing the same thing in a style you think could be considered opposite that you’ve created, then write in whatever “journaling voice” you use about how the two felt – what did you like about one over the other? Was there something good or bad about the both of them? How might you change either voice to suit you more? 

Interesting considerations

I found a few pieces of unique and interesting advice I wanted to point out here as well.

Consume challenging content

Brian Kurian wrote for Writing Cooperative about this, and suggested consuming content that challenges you. This basically means anything that makes you think or consider different viewpoints. I like this advice because, while reading a lot exposes you to a lot of words, reading content that challenges you exposes you to a lot of different voices. This also applies to podcasts, videos, Ted Talks, etc. Vary what you expose yourself to and you will get a breadth of experience. 

Read your work out loud

Laura Davis of The Write Life wrote about how, even once you found your voice, you might get too caught up in description or other technical aspects of what you’re writing and stray from your own voice. If you see a lot of instances in my blog posts where I didn’t use contractions, this is probably because I didn’t read it out loud. I have zero idea why I write like Data speaks, I just do.

I would argue that this is also a way to find your voice as well. Assuming you don’t have a speech impediment or disability of some sort, if you read your work out loud and stumble over every other word, this may not be your natural voice. 

Don’t write how you speak

To refer back to Henneke again, they mention that you should not write how you speak. I balked at this at first, but then the explanation was that we all use too many filler words and sounds – ahs, ums, likes, etc. – to be used in our writing. This is very true. If I wrote with as many filler sounds and textually trip over my own words as often as I do verbally, this blog would be unreadable. 

I even agree that how I write and how I speak are not super similar at all. However, as I’ll explain in a moment, that is how I got where I am now.

My thoughts on all this

I’ve gone through all this advice and more on the internet and I have my own thoughts as I went through this myself. You can follow my advice or the others’, I just hope that something here will resonate and help you get where you want to go!

Finding your voice, Charlie-style

bread on wood table and ceramic cup
First, you’re going to need a boatload of coffee…
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  1. Find a topic that you care about. It doesn’t have to be anything super controversial, just something that gets you a’talkin. 
  2. Start talking! Yes, out loud.
  3. Transcribe yourself. This can be done either as you’re speaking if you can type fast enough, or you can record yourself and transcribe on playback. 
  4. Clean yourself up. In the spirit of not writing how you talk, take out any filler words, misspoken words/phrases, etc. You can experiment with swearing if you are so inclined.
  5. Repeat. Do this over and over. If you don’t want to journal, go online! This might seem like a strange thing to do, but I did this naturally since I grew up with AIM and now use Discord all the time. I don’t typically use a lot of shortcuts when chatting unless I’m tired or being silly, and I used to naturally talk to myself as I chatted (I occasionally do that still, but only when I’m alone I promise). 

Eventually you are going to get really good at writing exactly how you would say something out loud. Then comes phase two: refining your natural voice. This means that you are taking all of those parts of speech at the beginning of this article into consideration and tweaking how you write to match how you want to appear to others, or the tone you’d like to convey in your writing. 

Once you can get to a comfortable spot writing how you want to sound, you can start working on better dialogue, or in-character narration, or even, as mentioned in the previous article, writing in the “house style” for collaborative projects you might want to join. 

It might sound like the long way around, why not just learn how to write other voices right now? You can do this, and I’m sure you can become very effective this way. However, I personally feel you would be remiss if you didn’t study voice from the inside. For example:

Why do you write the way that you do? What part of you says to use that word versus this one? How much of what you say is calculated, or traceable to an actual reason over happenstance? Your answers can inform your choices for characters for the rest of your life.

Resources

Kristina Adams – https://www.writerscookbook.com/how-to-find-your-writing-voice-2/
Jeff Goins – https://goinswriter.com/writing-voice/
https://nybookeditors.com/2017/06/find-writers-voice/
Henneke – https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/how-to-find-your-writing-voice/
Masterclass – https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-find-your-voice-in-writing#5-steps-to-find-your-writers-voice
https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-find-your-writing-voice#what-is-the-difference-between-the-authors-voice-and-characters-voice
Brian Kurian – https://writingcooperative.com/3-simple-things-you-can-do-to-find-your-writing-voice-9c6210dd6f0c
Laura Davis – https://thewritelife.com/unique-writing-voice/
Noah Berlatsky – https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/finding-your-voice-as-a-writer-overrated/382946/


For those of you who have already, how did you find your voice? For those who haven’t, what methods do you think you might use? Who else out there feels deeply uncomfortable when Brent Spiner uses contractions? Discuss in the comments below!

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