One of the greatest compliments I have ever received was from a colleague who had just read one of my sarcastic emails sent to inform the rest of the staff about something unimportant.
Sue: “You will never get away with sending an anonymous letter.”
Me: “Whaddya mean?”
Sue: “Because I don’t even have to look at who these stupid emails are from. I can just read them and know they’re from you.”
Me: “Thanks. I think. Right?”
It was a way of knowing I had reached, found, or created my writing “voice.” It’s one of those intangible things that is very difficult to teach and not everyone can learn. If you ever read an agent’s website to find out what kind of material they’re looking for, you’ll often see they want writers with a “strong voice.” Some writers will read that and ask two things.
- What the hell is a “voice”?
- How the hell do I get one?
The short answer to #2 is “time,” but I’ll expand on that later. The clinical answer to #1 is “sentences and thoughts using an identifiable style, often formed with certain sentence structures, word choices, types of humor, genre, subject matter, or another consistent characteristic.” This might not be easy to explain, but I’ll give it a shot.
If I fast forward to the middle of a Spielberg movie or a Springsteen song and hit “play,” it’ll only take a dozen or so seconds for me to know who is responsible. I wouldn’t be able to explain how or why I would know, but I would know. With Spielberg, there’s something about the balance of sound, the close-ups during dialogue, even the way the camera pans. With Springsteen, it’s his signature sound from his Fender guitar, although there’s no mistaking any of his songs once he starts singing.
This “voice” thing also works if I flip to the middle and start reading most any book by Stephen King. If you ask me or anyone, “But how do you really know?” sometimes the answer might be “I just know.” BTW – I hate that answer, but it’s the only one I have. Feel free to leave your own explanation, and feel free to tell me that mine makes no sense. I won’t disagree. What we might disagree on is how each of us can arrive at our own “voice.” In a way, your writing “voice” is similar to your real “voice.” Follow me on this extended analogy.
Most people dislike leaving a job and becoming the “new guy” at a different job. I hate it, that’s for sure, for more than one reason. First is the obvious – that you had just been fired or laid off or something like that. Second is the annoying – there’s too much to deal with, such as new names, new procedures, navigating the layout of the building, being extra polite around others, and the pressure of doing great work because you’re the new guy. It takes a while before you can get comfortable and start expressing yourself as you did at your previous job, the one you had for about 7 years. If you think about it, chances are it took you a while to get comfortable there, right?
In most cases, if you’re new, don’t speak out. Become a ghost. Don’t do anything to stand out. Shut up, blend in, and nod in agreement at all times. Don’t express yourself. If you don’t like what they’re putting in the coffee machine, smile and learn to like it. Work. Work more. It’s your job, so work. Slowly, you will see better ways to do things. You will make little changes that save time. You will see better, more efficient ways of doing things. You will make personal touches, improvements, and others will notice. Let your performance dictate “who” you are, and then you can stretch your legs a little bit.
Others might ask what you are doing because your hard work is getting noticed. They might even ask for tips or suggestions so they can try some of what you are doing. You will be flattered, but you will also be a little annoyed. You will want to tell them to go figure out their own personal touches instead of borrowing yours, but you will also feel good that others like your innovations, so you won’t mind if they copy a little.
Eventually others will see your work results – without your name on it – and know it is yours because they have learned your style, your voice, your unique way of doing things. It takes work to get there.
No writer has a voice when they start out. If you are writing short stories, it might take 10 before you begin to feel your voice. It might take three novels. It comes down to writing, writing more, not liking what you have written, rewriting, revising, and writing some more. If writing is new for you and someone’s writing advice is to develop your voice, ask them how they developed theirs. If they don’t know, then ask how you are supposed to follow advice from people who can’t explain their own advice. The reason I push this is because I love people who give advice that they themselves don’t fully understand. Many people will say “show, don’t tell” and “find your voice,” but those suggestions are worthless without explaining how to actually do it.
Finding and having a writing voice is pretty much finding and having a comfort level. It comes with time spent writing but also reading. Think of, or find a favorite author, and try to nail down what you like about that author’s work. It might lie in the voice. Two of my favorite authors are David McCullough and King.
I’m not really a fan of most of King’s stories because of the endings, but his writing voice is fabulous. His sentences are lessons because he writes with what I call “necessity.” He doesn’t waste time with a characters hair and eye color, height or weight, favorite foods, or any of that stuff – not unless it’s vital to the story. I recently read his short story called “Mile 81,” about an abandoned highway rest stop at which about a dozen people arrive at but only about three of them leave alive.
There were a few cops, two parents, a horse trainer, three kids ranging from about 3 to about 12, and a couple of other people, and I can recall a physical description of only the horse trainer, a hefty woman. King knows his job is to provide us with action, not pictures. If he provides the action, then readers will provide their own pictures. For more thoughts about that, you can read this recent post. As for your own “voice,” it comes with three things: time, practice, and honesty. That means learning to write like “you” instead of trying to write like someone else.
When I used to coach a school baseball team, the infielders would shy away from groundballs for fear of getting hit in the face or chest. I would tell the kids this great lie. “Look, no matter what you do, you’re going to get hit five times this season. So just let yourself get hit and get those five out of the way now. Then you won’t get hit anymore.” The same goes with your writing voice. It’s a certain amount of words, chapters, or stories away. For you, it might be six short stories, and for someone else maybe it’s two novels. However far away it is, just start writing now because the more you write, the sooner you will get there. There are no road signs, but you will know when you have arrived.
18 thoughts on “Writing 3.2 – “Finding your voice””
Immensely helpful… Thanks a lot…. Hatsoff
thanks very much. i appreciate you stopping by and sharing a comment.
So true about starting a new job. Being a nobody until they start familiarizing themselves with you is the easiest way not to offend anyone and catch unnecessary backlash. Sad but so very true.
i have had both the good and bad experiences at new jobs. thanks for stopping by and sharing a comment.
I most certainly have a voice. I think I have a voice, though most of the time it is muted.
“use it or lose it” applies, but not to you. but why is it muted?
I think it is part of the personal growth thing. Divorce and change and finding self. As the old is shed, the real comes out. Slowly what has been muted in the past peeks around corners. I think also it is part of a marriage between what is my personal world and my business world.
that goes along with what i call the “puzzle theory” for recovering from separation and divorce. when we are single, we are all a puzzle piece that outlines our individual personalities. then we enter into a relationship with someone whose puzzle piece fits ours as best we can find. but no two people fit perfectly, so we each reshape our pieces to make it work. however, sometimes the pieces fit so poorly that it doesn’t work out. so we separate. but we have become a new piece for so long that we aren’t ourselves anymore. it’s not possible to be in a relationship but maintain your original piece. so after divorce but before you can enter a new relationship, you have to first regain your original puzzle piece as best you can. must reshape to what feels comfortable for a new you before you can then begin to seek out another piece. if you try looking for a new relationship too soon, you will still be your puzzle piece from the relationship that is now over. it won’t work because you have changing to do, and you’ll only end up finding someone who fits the piece/shape that you need to leave behind.
that was long and quickly written, so i hope it makes sense.
It makes sense. I was already me, before the separation because of the first separation. Weird right? I was just hiding. Now the divorce is finally done, so I am dancing on the precipice, but still having to balance between work life / real life. Thus the muting.
muting through a fear of something, or just not ready yet?
No, actually just working through what has been muted. Fear was certainly part of it. Started publishing poetry on my blog recently, that was certainly one fear (still) that was tough to break out of. We will see what is next.
conquering fears is a good thing – unless sharks are involved. or parachutes.
Get your own voice! I’ve had people openly tell me they were trying to copy my style. It’s wrong. I mean, my writing style is so tied up to who I am: twisted. Right Dick? :p
The worst is that, when I just write freely my voice just comes out. Have you ever done that “The Artist’s Way” thing where you have to write 2 pages per day? That helped me figure out what my style was. And nothing is worse than when a boss tells you how to write. I know I have to to it, I can be formal and business like, but taking on somebody else’s voice when it involves so much vocabulary that is just not mine makes me feel like such a phony-baloney.
i’m involved now at work where my style is somewhat guided. i write websites for businesses. i get the answers to about 40 interview questions, then i write about five web pages based on my “feel” for what they want, what the product or company is, etc. i have been occasionally criticized for having incomplete sentences. sometimes, they are incomplete, but that is a style that can work on certain websites. sometimes you have to consider the audience, who would be on that site, and what appeals to them. but the bosses who provide feedback can’t think that far ahead.
my problem is with content such as “feeling very humbled by your deep gratitude, namasté” this stuff just isn’t me, you know? Incomplete sentences are rad. Just because. 🙂
i don’t like incomplete sentences, but i do know they are sometimes needed, especially in advertising. and the websites i write are all advertising.
And once you’ve got your voice, it stays with you, even if you change your perspective when writing a story or whatever.
Yes, you never lose it. But like muscles, it strengthens with greater use.