So in my last post, Own Your Voice: Here’s Why, I talked a little bit about how important it is for us as authors to acknowledge the value of our unique voices. We all have authors who inspire us, who make us want to be better writers. But there’s a huge difference between being influenced by someone else’s writing and attempting to copy it.
In fact, I believe that this is one of the biggest sources of frustration that new authors face. When you try to write “like” someone else, it can feel forced, inauthentic, canned, or shallow. If your writing doesn’t have the depth or the spark that you want, the solution may be as easy as letting your unique voice shine through.
So how do you go about “owning” your voice as a writer? Here’s a few tips that might help.
1. Know Yourself: It is impossible for you to write in a way that is authentically your own unless you know a little bit about yourself – about the way you speak, think, and write. The specifics of what you’ll need to know vary depending on what kind of writing you do, so this type of self-analysis will be very different for each individual. But the fundamental question is the same: What are my natural tenancies and strengths in this area?
Remember that this is not about the kind of writer you want to be. This is about acknowledging the way that your mind naturally flows, the well-worn paths that your thoughts tend to take. For instance, I’m a non-fiction writer and my books tend to be either informative (teaching a lesson) or persuasive (making an argument). So in order to know myself better, I should ask – how do I explain things to people? How do I try to convince people that I’m right?
In my case, I tend to explain from the big to the small. I like to understand the big picture before I get into the minutia of the smaller details. I find it easier to understand them when I can place them into a larger whole. So when I’m teaching I tend to present things the way that works for me. I’ve also found that I like to tell illustrative stories and anecdotes in my explanations or arguments.
Knowing this about myself in advance has helped me tremendously when planning out new books. Instead of building a structure and then trying to fit my personality and preferences into it, I have learned to build my book around my natural tenancies. That, in turn, has made it easier for my voice to shine through.
2. Write What You Know. Or more accurately “Write What You Understand.” This is applicable regardless of what kind of writing you’re doing. If you can’t wrap your head around a concept or if you don’t “get” your characters enough to not only understand their motivations, but sympathize with them (at least a little bit) your writing won’t work – at least, it won’t work from the perspective of your voice.
Jane Austin is famous for saying that she would never write a scene between two men without a woman present. She knew that men spoke and related to one another differently when they were alone, and she didn’t trust herself to write those scenes with any authenticity. Now I’m not saying that’s a rule you have to live by. By all means, use your imagination to take your writing places you’ve never gone and to explore concepts you haven’t experienced. But don’t let that exploration take you so far that you lose what’s grounding you in reality. Make sure that whatever you’re working on starts from a place of personal truth – it’s the best way to keep your voice, your point of view, your flavor shining through.
3. Read Your Writing Out Loud. And as you do, ask yourself one question: “Does this sound like me?” Now I’m not saying that every character you ever write will have to speak exactly like you do. Of course you’re creating someone fictional, and so their speech and thought patterns will all be different. That being said, while your characters or exposition might not mirror your speech, you should always be able to recognize your own voice in the overall tone of the piece.
If, while reading out loud, you find yourself stumbling over phrases, getting lost in your own sentences, or struggling to find the flow of your writing – you’ve found a problem. The problem might be a matter of structure. Maybe you just need to polish a few things out. But you might also be struggling because the tone of what you’ve written no longer rings true to your authentic voice.
So if you find yourself stuck, unable to easily read your own writing out loud, ask yourself another question “How would I say this?” Don’t ask how you would write it differently. Force yourself to say it out loud. You might be surprised at what you come up with. At the very least, it will bring you closer to your authentic voice.
4. Let Someone Else Read It. This is one of those tips that seems so pointless, but has actually worked wonders for me. Find someone who knows you well, someone you trust, and ask them to read your work. They don’t have to be a literary professional – this is one of those situations where your bookworm mom or best friend who majored in English will be completely fine. You don’t need them to edit or proofread what you’ve written. Their only job is to tell you if the writing sounds like you.
Now this can be a frustrating process – so make sure you’re prepared before you go in. The idea of what a book “sounds” like can be difficult to pin down, and the feedback you get may not always be helpful. But if you’re hunting for the authenticity of your voice as a writer, these are the people you want to listen to. They’re the ones who will tell you if the words on your page sound the way you think they sound.
My mother did this for me after I’d finished my first draft of Dream Chasers. One afternoon she sat in my living room, skimming through the book and reading out loud the passages that were so formal, dry, and clinical that they sounded like someone else entirely. Mind you, they didn’t sound that way in my head. When I wrote them, they were filled with tone, nuance, and wit – I promise. But one glance from a perspective other than my own showed me what those words sounded like to other people’s ears. She was able to demonstrate very quickly and concisely just how far I’d wandered away from my authentic voice.