A couple months ago I asked some of my clients if there are terms they hear in writing and publishing that they wish someone would clearly and conclusively define. One said this: “Professionals say, ‘Find your voice,’ ‘Trust your voice,’ ‘Embrace your voice.’ I can recognize another writer’s voice, but I can’t for the life of me describe mine. Is ‘your voice’ something someone else has to describe because it’s too hard to be objective about our own writing?”
Heck, I dunno.
See, that’s my voice. Coming through. Right there on your screen. You’re welcome.
Okay, okay, I’ll try to be more helpful than that. But it won’t be easy. Because “voice” is much misunderstood in writing circles. A writer once objected to my coaching, saying, “That’s my voice! That’s how I write!” I did my best to explain that, no, voice is not cluelessness, laziness, or lack of skill. I was a little gentler than that, of course. Probably too gentle because I don’t think he caught on.
“Voice” isn’t style or technique (or the lack of such things). It’s not how you punctuate or don’t punctuate. It has little to do with spelling or the rules of grammar.
It’s you. It’s your personality, your passions, your sense of humor, your modus operandi all rolled into one. It’s how you think, feel, and see the world coming through in writing. It’s what happens when you feel most at home in your own skin, free to express what’s in your heart, mind, and soul. It’s when you stop posturing, performing, or imitating, and the “youness” that is you comes through on a page.
Still not clear? Wondering how in the world you’re supposed to “find your voice” when you’re already you? Shouldn’t it just happen?
Well, no. But there are a few ways I can think of to help you “find” or “free” your voice:
Stop trying. Don’t try to write like “a writer.” Don’t force yourself to sound a certain way. As the philosopher Dave Mason once sang, “Let it go, let it go, let it flow like a river; Let it go, let it go, let it flow through you.” (You may be too young to hear the tune, so look it up if you need to).
- Write a lot.
Finding or freeing your “voice” involves—for most people—overcoming the writing habits of grade school or grad school, of the pulpit or the prison. For example, in my experience, academics have a really tough time finding their voice because they were required for so long to suppress their own voices in writing theses and dissertations, all of which has to be unlearned before they can “write like themselves” again. The more you write—as you, not someone else—the more that’s likely to happen.
- Master the elements of good writing.
Finding your voice doesn’t mean you can ignore the rules of good writing or eschew critique and editing. In fact, as you improve in those areas, you’ll find your voice because you’ll become freer to be yourself in words, sentences, and pages.
- Review and reflect.
As you’re writing and when you finish a piece of writing (an article, say, or a chapter), take some time to review and reflect on what you’ve written. Did you feel “at home in your own skin” as you wrote? Did you feel like yourself? Read it aloud; does it sound like you (not necessarily how you talk, but your personality, passions, perspectives—and even words that don’t alliterate)? Or does it sound like someone else? Were you putting on airs? Posturing? Preaching? Performing? Imitating? Ask someone who knows you well to read it and answer those questions. Lather, rinse, repeat.
- Keep writing. A lot.
Your voice can’t be forced. It’s found and freed as you write, the more you write … and write and write and write. As you become not only better but more “you” as a writer, your voice will emerge. And it will feel suhweet.