Think about voice in terms of style—your voice is your unique style of writing. When we start out, we tend to write like we think writers ought to sound, instead of finding our own sound. This leads to stilted, stiff writing. Here are some tips for finding your distinctive style.
Write the way you speak—sort of. Your speaking voice is your natural voice. Don’t try to write writerly. Write as you speak, within reason. In writing, we do want to eliminate the wordiness, repetition, and flaws of our speech. Have you ever wished you could rewind what you just said and clean it up? In writing, you can, and you should.
Embrace your uniqueness. Your ideal writing voice will reflect your personality. If you’re a casual kind of person, let that come through in your writing. Don’t try to fake formality. But if you are naturally formal, don’t feel you have to fake slanginess to appeal to readers. Write in accordance with your personality, and your writing will attract readers who enjoy that sort of writing.
Write a lot. Backside in chair time is key. Writing needs to be practiced, just like playing a sport or a musical instrument. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, highlights an idea first put forward by psychologists, that the elite experts in a field have put in about 10,000 hours of concentrated practice to reach that level. Gladwell explains the 10,000-hour rule in this article. One of the things he points out is that simpler skills can be learned in less time, but that complex skills often require more. Novel-writing is among one of the most complex skills in all of art, because of the large number of elements and the vast range of possibilities within each element. Voice is just one element of fiction, and like the others, it requires practice to develop.
Be willing to write a crappy first draft. Consider it part of the practice. A great deal of writer’s block comes from the fear that what we write won’t be any good. It can be quite freeing to say, “It doesn’t matter if what I write today isn’t any good. I’ll improve it later. You can’t edit a blank page, but you can edit crap.
Write about the things that get you fired up. This is sometime called riff writing. When your emotions are engaged, your internal editor will shut off. Words will pour out of you. Go on a riff about whatever excites you, good or bad. Your most loved hobby. Your most hated politician. Whatever pushes your buttons, write about it. This doesn’t need to be writing anyone will ever see. It can be just for practice. But it might make a good blog post.
Read widely. Explore all types of writing: Fiction, nonfiction, subjects you love, subjects you know nothing about. Read how-to books about writing. Read books that have nothing to do with writing. Read genres you’ve never tried before. Read works from other cultures. Read the classics. Read bestsellers and examine what readers love about them. Experiment with imitating some of them to see whether they suit you. Reading widely is so crucial to developing your voice as a writer, I’m going to spend some more time on it in my next post.
In the meantime, go read, and go write.
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