Well, I definitely don’t think the process unfolds the same way for each of us. And even those of us who progress in more or less the same steps do things differently. We need more time here or there; we pick up one thing pretty quickly but struggle with others.
Every writer has a unique voice, because every writer, every person, is unique. That’s not big news.
I like to ask writers “Are you a Hemingway or a Faulkner,” as a shorthand way to classify the two major TYPES of style, simple and minimalistic versus more ornate. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a myriad of possibilities to individualize your writing, no matter where you fall on the spectrum or how many other writers occupy a similar spot.
So, that’s my disclaimer: I do understand that finding your voice is a bit different for different people. That doesn’t mean that no general milestones exist as we go through the process.
You might do these things in a different order than I did. Or maybe one or two of them was just present with you from the start, so you’ve been able to take it for granted. (That’s AWESOME, by the way!)
If you feel like you are having trouble finding your voice, you might want to try focusing on one or more of the following things:
We have, have, HAVE to read. If we want to write well, we have to read. I’ve said that before and I will always say it.
One reason we need to read so much is that reading exposes us to all kinds of different styles. The more we read, there more we subconsciously realize, “I like this aspect of how this person writes. I want to try to do that too, just in my own way.”
Maybe, even consciously, we think, “This is good, but if the author added THIS to what he’s doing it would be so much better!” And bam, you’ve jump started the process of finding how you write.
WRITE WHAT INTERESTS YOU.
You might be surprised how much your topic, and how you focus on that topic, affects your voice.
What you are writing about influences tone. Your angle of approach definitely influences tone as well. Think of war as an example: are you going to be sarcastic? Wittily deprecating of the violence? Are you going to really delve into the psychological effects of warfare with compassion and care?
However you write about war, I’d be shocked indeed if your tone was one of utter disconnect or pure apathy.
There is a reason so many authors (at this point, including me!) stick to one genre, one KIND of story: it’s how they found their voice. They feel that their voice suits that genre and the stories they tell in that genre. They aren’t sure that voice will transfer to something else.
Can it? Maybe. Can we benefit from branching out? Absolutely, when we feel ready and inspired to do so. But leaving our established genre isn’t any kind of requirement. When what you know how to do is working well for you, why fix what’s broken?
SPEND SOME TIME FREE WRITING
Seriously: free writing is one of the exercises that most benefited me in my creative writing courses in college.
Find a topic, or a phrase to start you off, and for five, ten, or fifteen minutes, just WRITE. Don’t overthink things. Don’t worry about how bad your writing is (because in a lot of ways, it WILL be bad). Just write.
When we don’t get hung up on the little details and we put our insecurities aside, we leave room for our true writer to emerge in bits and pieces. Later on, when you read through what you wrote, you will find details that you really like: turns of phrase, or a way a paragraph flows, or how you somehow got entranced by the psychology of the topic and focused inward rather than on action.
All of this will help you discern what you do well and what you enjoy doing in your writing.
WRITE HOW FEELS NATURAL, AND EDIT TO MAKE YOUR SENTENCES FEEL MORE NATURAL
Don’t try to copy someone else’s style. Focus on writing what sounds “right” to your ear. I often read my writing aloud, especially dialogue: that helps a lot!
(I tend to be on the Hemingway/minimalist side of the spectrum, so reading aloud helps me find where I feel I am being wordy or rambling).
After writing what sounds right, and after editing for content, my final edits are all about making what’s natural feel even MORE natural. I promise: the more you write and read, the more you’ll realize, “this sentence would sound so much better without the three adverbs ending in -ly.”
A lot of what bogs our sentences down bogs them down because it isn’t needed for comprehension. Or it’s repetitive. A handful of such phrases or words you might decide to keep. You might understand that they enhance and enrich the feel or the tone of the sentence. And that’s awesome. Most of them, you’ll see, actually take away from what you want to jump out.
WRITE, WRITE, AND WRITE SOME MORE
There’s a reason people say, “practice makes perfect.” Now, no one’s writing will ever be perfect, but the fact is, we can only improve at writing by writing. Reading up on writing can help us learn to recognize errors, or “bad” constructions, but honestly, nothing helps us learn how to write the way writing does.
That’s why I try to focus on a few simple precepts about writing on my blog and in my writer’s handbook, “Writing for You”
- Writers shoot for constant and measurable improvement, not for “perfection”
- Writers strive to write every day, but understand that life intervenes sometimes and that that is nothing to beat themselves up about
- Writers are critical of their work without being critical of themselves as people (or as writers)
It took me quite a while to understand, accept, and incorporate those things into my own approach to writing, but doing so went a LONG way to helping me find my voice.
So, what has helped you find your voice (or is helping you to do just that?) Do you have any other advice or other kinds of exercises to recommend?
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You might also enjoy this related post, “The evolution of a writer’s voice: how does it happen?”