A former student of mine from my flagship writing course The Quiet Words once asked me how it was that I managed to sound consistent in everything that I wrote from my book to my blog to my Instagram captions. “How did you find your writing voice?” she asked.
At first her question confounded me and I did not know how to answer it because what she saw as consistent, I saw as simply being me. And then I realised that was the answer after all. How do you find your writing voice? Well, you be you.
Of course, this is easier said than done especially if you’re an aspiring writer, still working out what you want to write about let alone how you want to write or what sort of voice you imagine writing in, especially if words are something that you might struggle with.
But I believe that finding your writing voice is not just about finding a certain writing style. It is about language, yes of course, but it is also so much more than that. It is about finding yourself. It is allowing yourself to write in a way that feels honest and not permeating into what is popular, fashionable or what works for other people. Finding your writing voice enables you to write in the confidence that you sound like you - because you are you. Not because you’re trying to be someone else.
But where do you begin to find that voice that is authentic, true and sincere? A voice that can only be yours? Well, it takes time and practice.
As a journalist for over a decade, the voice I wrote in wasn’t my writing voice. Sure, I might have shared my opinions in comment pieces, or presented other people’s perspectives in features and news articles, but my voice was always in line with an in-house style, the particular tone of whichever publication I happened to be writing for.
It was while writing my first book, In Spite of Oceans, that I found my writing voice because I was unconstrained by expectations of having to “sound” a certain way. The voice of my book is the voice through which I see the world. It’s the voice of my thoughts, the way I speak. It’s even the voice of this blog. I wrote In Spite of Oceans in the voice of a quiet observer, on the fringes, looking in. I think, in a way, that’s the person I’ve always been. The more I write, the easier it is for me to know my writing voice. But it has not always been this way.
When I fell pregnant for the first time, I set up a blog to write about pregnancy. This was my first mistake - a blog “about pregnancy” is as vague as a blog “about food.” I had read other people’s pregnancy blogs and thought it might be fun to do the same. This was my second mistake - I literally thought I could do the same, adopting the tone of other pregnant people’s voices, the voices of people I had nothing in common with other than the fact we were pregnant. I thought that in order to have a blog about pregnancy I had to sound like every other blog about pregnancy. I don’t like swearing for instance (don’t laugh, it’s the school girl in me) and yet there I was, profaning about morning sickness. Neither am I sarcastic and yet again, there I was, trying out deadpan awkwardly. I’m not like that in real life and therefore I can’t write like that either. It’s no wonder this blog did not last very long.
I tell you this in order to show you that when you’re writing on your own platform, a blog say or a draft of a first-person book, the only way you can sustain it is to write as you. You can’t pretend to be someone you are not. You can’t adopt another person’s style and expect to be able to keep that going.
Your writing voice is the atmosphere you want to evoke, and you can enhance your voice through your writing style. It’s your writing voice you want your readers to remember you for.
There are many reasons a writing voice is important: for drawing readers in, for building a loyal readership that falls in love with your words and for some people, establishing a strong brand. But these aren’t the only reasons. Being consistent in your writing and your writing voice is not just about being consistent for the sake of an audience. It’s about being consistent to yourself, for yourself. Finding your writing voice is about staying true to who you are.
Seven ways to find your writing voice.
Record yourself. If you find it difficult to face a blank page and find it hard to express yourself in writing, record what it is you want to say instead. Talk it out and then transcribe. It doesn’t matter at this stage if you don’t yet have all the words you think you need; you will find ways to express yourself better through language with time, the more you read. At this stage, don’t worry about having to sound a certain way. Just think about sounding like you. Listen to yourself.
Think about a writer whose work you admire. How would you describe their work? Is that how you’d like your work to be described too?
Write down three to six ideals words you’d like to describe your own writing - the way in which you want readers to think about your work. For instance, your words could be witty, contemporary and bold. Or poetic, whimsical and dreamy. (And can you already see how these two descriptions would result in two very different writing voices?).
Hold yourself up to those expectations. Always keep those three to six words which you’d like to describe your own writing in mind anytime you write. Every time you finish a piece, ask yourself if the writing you’ve produced lives up to those adjectives. If not, keep going until it is.
Read widely. The more you read, the more you immerse yourself in language, the easier it will be to find the vocabulary you need to express yourself in a writing voice that will eventually come naturally to you.
Let go of any assumptions. You don’t have to “sound” a certain way to be a writer. A big mistake that I often come across when editing other people’s work is that in writing they often sound far too formal or contrived. They are trying too hard to sound the way they think they ought to, when really they need to simply relax and write the way they talk. The literary techniques will come later, but for now, you just need to capture the essence of who you are in writing.
Whenever you find yourself cringing over something you’ve written, chances are it’s most likely because it’s not authentically you. It’s not your writing voice. Scrap it.