‘Voice is the je ne sais quoi of spirited writing. It separates brochures and brilliance, memo and memoir, a ship’s log and The Old Man and the Sea. The best writers stamp prose with their own distinctive personality; their timbre and tone are as recognizable as their voices on the phone. To cultivate voice, you must listen for the music of language – the vernacular, the syntactic tics, the cadences.’ – Constance Hale
This quote from Constance Hale (author of books on language: Sin and Syntax and Wired Style) is one of my favourites. And she’s so right. Voice is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of your writing. The fact is that voice is the expression of who you really are. Not just as a writer but as a human being – your character, your personality, the you part of you. So there’s very little point in trying to create a voice. You’ll just end up sounding like you’re talking with an affected accent. The point is we all have a voice. It may be well hidden by the barriers we put up to stop others seeing what we’re really like inside but it is there nonetheless. Finding your voice requires a brutal honesty about yourself and a willingness to lay bare your inner character, warts and all.
So it really is that simple… All you have to do is answer one of the most profound and fundamental questions anyone can ever ask – Who am I? Voice has been described as being somewhere between your conscious and your subconscious mind. When who you are (subconscious) comes through in your writing more than who you think you are or who you want to be (conscious), it’s in that moment that you can begin finding your voice. The result should be a more natural and authentic writing style.
The good news is that this is something you can practise. I don’t mean that you should try and change your natural voice but in order to discover the real you and let it have its say, there are things you can do to help the process on its way. Here are my tips:
1. Read as much as possible.
Read everything you can get your hands on. Fiction, non-fiction, books you would naturally choose and books that are out of your comfort zone. Read different genres and styles and most importantly read books by great writers. Read the classics and read the best of the new. Listen for the distinctive voice of the best writers and you’ll be better equipped to listen for your own. Take particular note of the writing that resonates with you personally as your own writing should feel the same way.
2. Write about your life.
I’m not saying you should write your memoirs but personal writing exercises are a good way to explore what makes you tick and improve your writing skills into the bargain. Have brainstorming sessions on different subjects. Memories, favourite places, faces, dreams, things that scare you, things that make you smile. Just write down the first words that come to mind and then pick one of them to write about. Don’t worry about a story or word counts. Just write and see where it takes you.
3. Write something different.
Broaden your horizons. Try your hand at writing something new. Have a go at writing in a unfamiliar genre. Crime, science fiction, fantasy, romance, anything outside your comfort zone. Pick one you’ve never done before and give it a go.
4. Step outside your own little world.
Try writing from someone else’s viewpoint for a change. Write about something you have strong views on but write from the opposite point of view. This is an excellent way to get inside your own head and challenge your own thought processes.
5. Write about the things you care about.
Just forget about target readerships for a moment and write about the things that mean something to you. It may be that nobody other than you ever reads what you’ve written but then again it may be the best work you’ve ever produced. Either way this is the only way you’re going to be able to write anything worth reading. If you’re not gripped by your subject then you shouldn’t expect your readers to be overly excited either.
6. Try not to think about voice.
Don’t force the issue. There’s no quick fix here. Voice is something that needs to develop naturally.
7. Write, write write and then keep on writing.
When a child is learning to talk they will become fluent much more quickly by talking as much as possible. The same is true of finding your voice in writing. You will write some rubbish. OK, a lot of rubbish. But just keep writing. Write as much as possible, practise your craft in whatever way you can and then as you become more fluent in your chosen language, your voice should become progressively clearer. You should be able to look back at what you’ve written and find out who the you part of you really is.
8. Keep it real.
This is the only way your voice will ever be authentic. Be natural, write from the heart and don’t try to be anything or anyone you’re not. Believe me, readers will spot a fake from a mile off. So the most important thing is to just be yourself. And always remember the wise words of Dr Seuss himself – There’s no-one alive who is Youer than You.