Own Your Voice: Tips and Tricks

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.

7 Tips for Non-Fiction Writers

There are thousands of blogs out there with thousands of posts filled with advice about how to write fiction. Plotting, character development, world building, timelines – heck, I’ve even read blog posts on how to give a character an accent. It seems like there’s no end to the detailed and (one would hope) informed nuggets of writerly wisdom.

But what about those of us who don’t write fiction? Our writing universe is, in many ways, vastly different than the world of fiction writers. Much of what we struggle with and many of the problems we face are unique to our genre. So where are our nuggets of wisdom? Where are our helpful hints and sage suggestions? Advise from those who’ve done what we do seems to be a little thinner on the ground. So in the interest of filling in a bit of the void, here are a few tips, tricks, and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way. Maybe they’ll help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1. Do your research. This might seem obvious, but it’s not. If you choose to write nonfiction, it’s often because you already know something about the subject. As a result, nonfiction writers often have a lot to say that requires no research whatsoever. But go out and take a look anyway. See what’s out there relating to your topic. You might be surprised at the insights you can gain that will help to inspire, focus, or even broaden your topic of discussion.

That being said, you don’t want to fall into the research black hole (the one where you get so absorbed in your topic that you emerge 6 months later with stacks of data and not a single word written). So pace yourself and remember that you don’t need to complete all the research before you start to write. You’ll be better equipped to go looking for specific information once you hone down the specific needs of your book.

2. Find a way to add interest. Remember that it never hurts to find a structure and a voice that will make your topic surprising or engaging for your audience. Yes your topic is probably widely fascinating all on its own, and your readers will pick up your book because they’re interested in what you have to say. But if you think back to some of the best nonfiction you’ve ever read you’ll probably realize that what made it special was the fact that it gave you more than you’d anticipated.

Please understand, this isn’t about tricks and gimmicks. It’s about finding ways to add layers of meaning, depth, or texture to your perspective. If you’re writing about large social issues, can you create a structure that makes it more personal? If you’re telling someone’s story, can you place it in a larger historical context? Can you ground you abstract ideas into something concrete and practical? Do you want to fill your how-to manual with silly or embarrassing anecdotes? Remember that non-fiction shouldn’t equal dull!

3. Build a structure. I’ve written entire blog posts about the importance of creating a solid structure for your non-fiction writing before you start to write. You can read them here and here. Remember that unless you’re telling a chronological story (in fact, even IF you’re telling a chronological story), you are going to have to make decisions on how to order and organize your material. Every book needs a narrative flow, a pattern that the reader can follow as the book progresses.  Deciding how you’re going to address that for YOUR book is something you should do before you start writing.

This is essentially the nonfiction version of world building. Yes, you can make these things up as you go along, but chances are good that the end result will feel like … well, like you made it up as you went along. Decide on your book’s world now. What are the rules of this book? What patterns exist in the writing? What overarching themes are you addressing? Grounding yourself in these things at the beginning will give you a solid foundation that you can build on.

4. Plan ahead!  When I was in college writing research papers, I would write all of the data that I wanted to use (stats, quotes, etc) on individual index cards. Then I would structure my paper around my data. I’d decide ahead of time which references I was going to use in each section, and I’d clump my cards together accordingly. That not only helped me include all of my relevant data in each section, but it also instantly alerted me to the places where I needed to go back to do more research (See #1 above).

Now I’m not saying you have to use index cards, or even that you should write around your data – by all means do what works for you. But you do need a game plan. Maybe you’ll use some awesome computer software to track these thing (I don’t – but I’ve heard there’s great stuff out there). Or maybe you’ll use color coded post-its on a huge cork board over your desk (don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it. It’s a lot more fun than you’d think). But the point is that you have to do something. After all, you are writing a full-length book, which means you have a lot more to keep track of then I did back in college. Besides, if you’ve already done your research (see #1) and created a viable structure (see #3), it should be relatively easy at this stage to take what you want to say and fit it into the appropriate slots. Doing this before you start to write will tell you a) whether the structure you’ve chosen is working for you and b) where you have too much or too little to say.

5. Own your artistic voice. This tip isn’t necessarily exclusive to nonfiction writers, but it is especially important for us to remember. Your book may not be a work of fiction, but it is still a creative endeavor. You are an artist who uses a keyboard to paint a picture of the world for your readers. Don’t be afraid of embracing that title.

So many nonfiction writers, even those who’ve written successfully in other venues, seem to have trouble keeping their creativity flowing once they sit down to tackle a book. It’s almost as if the weight of the thousands of words ahead of them somehow muffle their natural voices. But the buttoned up formality of a voice that isn’t yours will never produce great writing. So make a point to own your voice. Write with confidence. Write from a place of truth. Write what you know – and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

6. Don’t be afraid to keep it short. You’re not writing a novel. You are not required to produce 75-100 thousand words in order for your book to be consider a satisfying length. Some non-fiction books are long by necessity, and that’s fine. But if you finish what you have to say in 40 thousand words, don’t be afraid to stop. There’s no reason for you to feel the need to pad out your manuscript with useless fluff or unnecessary extras. You are better off keeping your work short, focused, and to the point. Remember – what makes a book good is powerful writing. That’s what’s going to satisfy your audience.

7. Engage your audience. Non-fiction writers have a distinct advantage over fiction writers when it comes to audience-interaction. Because your potential readers are normally specifically interested in your topic, and because you are talking about something real (what with it being nonfiction and all…) you have the unique opportunity to build your brand by interacting directly with your readers ABOUT the topic of your book.

So make sure that you take advantage of this opportunity. Get out there and find your readers, and once you find them, engage with them in a meaningful and intelligent way! Build your website, of course. Get yourself on twitter or facebook or whatever you want to get onto – and then USE that platform to talk about what you know. Share excerpts from the book, insights that didn’t make it in, research that you didn’t use, or knowledge of related subjects. Don’t let your nonfiction status go to waste. You have the opportunity of a lifetime to find readers, to retain them, and to keep them constantly coming back for more!

What about you? What tips or tricks have helped you with your non-fiction writing? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: How do I build it?

Don’t worry. This is not one of those posts where I get all technical and break down rules of paragraph structure and other yawn-inducing tedium. Rather, this post will (I hope) get you thinking in a “structural” way about how to write and organize your book.

In my last post: Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it Important? I talked about how necessary an overt structure is to the non-fiction (specifically non-story-driven) reader. We kept it simple, bringing things back to the basic rules of writing an essay:

1. Tell the reader what you’re going to talk about

2. Talk about it

3. Tell them what you’ve just been talking about

But it’s important to realize WHY these rules exist, and what function they serve in the scope of a larger written work. Because if you’re writing 75,000 words on a topic, you’re going to need more than an introduction and a conclusion to tie the whole thing together. But these rules work for the same reason that your book structure is going to work – because the repetition creates a familiarity for the reader that makes their reading experience easier and more enjoyable.

Think of your book as a song that your readers are listening to for the first time. You don’t expect them to know the words. You want them to like the song, to settle into listening to it without having their concentration broken or jarred by something unexpected or unpleasant. By the time they get half way through they should know (more or less) what the chorus sounds like, and should be able to recognize it when it’s played again. It’s the melody (the structure) that creates the repetition and familiarity. The melody is what makes a good song easy to listen to, even if you’ve never heard it before. Yes the lyrics have to be amazing (you have to write well) and you want the message to be something that stirs people (you should be writing about a topic that you’re passionate about). But if the melody isn’t there (if you don’t create a strong structure within your book) nobody’s going to care to listen to it for very long.

Ok, so we know that structure is going to be important. But how do we actually build it into our books? Well there are two different steps that you can take.

First, (and yes, this is the part that you’ve already thought of) you need to organize your topic into a logical and easy-to-follow format. Create an outline for the material you want to cover, but make sure that you’re organizing the data in a way that’s going to make sense to your reader. Keep in mind that there’s normally more than one way to do this. If you’re writing a how-to book (how to build a computer from scratch, how to self-publish your book) you could organize it chronologically (do this than that) or by sub-category (a section on writing, one on editing, etc.). Similarly, if you’re writing a book on the practical application of a theory (building a godly marriage, let’s say, or raising healthy kids), you will have to decide how to balance the theory and the practical advice. Do you explain the theory first and then break down the practical application in a separate section of the book? Or do you try to create subcategories and address theory and application for each category at the same time?

The point is that you have a lot of decisions to make, probably more than you realize, about how to organize your data. But the important thing is to make a decision. Pick a structure and then stick to it. This is also the point in  your structure-building that you’ll have to deal with the outliers – the points or issues that don’t fit nicely into the flow of an outline. Figure out how to handle them now. Find a place to fit them. It will save you headaches down the road.

Second, after you’ve thought about how you want to organize your data, it is time for you to consider how you can build familiarity and patterns into the format of your individual sections or chapters of your book. In other word, what can you do to make one chapter feel and sound and flow like another? How can you tie these thousands of words together so that they function as a cohesive unit rather than a simple stream of thoughts and ideas? This is where you can let yourself get creative and allow your personality to shine through.

Do you want to include an analogy in each chapter? What about an anecdote? If you are writing a how to, are you making reference to the big picture in each section of your book? Are there larger themes running through each chapter? How can you make them stronger without belaboring the point? Are all of your chapters structured in the same way? Do they follow repeating and recognizable patterns?

This was my biggest failing when I first sat down to write my book. My subject matter (it fits best into the theory-into-practice category) was a tricky one. So before I started the book I tackled the fundamentals of the data outline. My material flowed in a “logical” pattern. And each of my individual chapters covered a subject that clearly related back to the main point of the book. But as it turned out, that wasn’t enough to take my discussion of the subject and turn it into a book. No matter how many times I re-wrote, or how strongly I tied each chapter back to the opening section on “theory”, the individual chapters themselves were not cohesive. There was no flow, no built-in anticipation that fed readers from one chapter to the next.

Finding a solution to this problem proved tricky. I ended up having to create what I called a “chapter checklist”, which basically functioned as a very rigid outline that every chapter had to follow. It had to start with a reference to A, continue on with an anecdotal story, move into a reference to B, and then get into practical points 1, 2, and 3, etc. etc. etc. The process of taking my pre-written material and fitting it into a structure after the fact was brutal. It took a lot of time. It also meant that I had to re-write entire chapters, completely remove others, and add a significant amount of material to almost all of them. It was painful and difficult, but it made all the difference in the world. It transformed my book from rambling to readable, all because I gave the readers a recognizable pattern to follow.

So if you get anything out of this post please let it be this – don’t make the same mistakes I did. Don’t create an outline and think you’re done building the structure of your book. If you’re writing non-fiction, especially something that isn’t story driven, you will save yourself a lot of sweat and suffering if you will just take the time to address the issues of structure BEFORE you begin to write.

And for those of you who think that I’m crazy, who are convinced that you can write an amazing book without planning the structure ahead of time … well, maybe you’re right. Maybe my severely logical brain just failed me on this occasion. But remember this: it is entirely possible for you to take your free-flowing poetry and set it to music if you want to. But it will be a lot easier and sound a lot better if you start with the music and write the words to fit into the structure you’ve already created.

Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it important?

This is one of those areas where I consider myself an expert of the “What NOT to Do” variety. I made the mistake of writing the first draft of my non-fiction book before I’d mapped out it’s structure, and the result was a convoluted mess that took me nearly a year (and several re-writes) to fix. So, having been through the ringer and come out the other side, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the importance of building a definable and recognizable structure into a nonfiction book before starting to write it.

I am a firm believer that structure is a necessary component of any well-written book. The analogy that works for me is that if the book is a body, the structural elements are the “bones” upon which everything else hangs. Without those bones, there’s no leverage, no strength, nothing solid. Without structure, you end up with little more than a pile of meat.

This is easy enough to understand in fiction writing (and even story-driven nonfiction such as memoirs or biographies). Good story-telling is always structured around a plot, the chronological progression from one event to the next. Without a solid plot you really don’t have a story at all. No matter how compelling the characters may be or how unique or interesting the world they inhabit, without a plot, there’s nothing solid to anchor them onto. There isn’t any way for readers to engage. In story-driven writing, the plot serves as the structure, the bones around which everything else is built and (forgive the pun) fleshed out.

But what do you do when the book you want to write isn’t a story? What if you’re writing a self-help book, a how-to, or a persuasive argument? What if you can’t rely on chronology or the progression of events to create those bones upon which to hang your book? Is there a way to create a structure within books that don’t tell a story? Does structure really matter then?

Yes there is. And yes it does.

In fact, I would argue that creating a solid structure for your non-fiction writing may be the most important factor you can consider before you begin your first draft. A well-structured book will not only engage the reader, but it will also draw them in. It will help them to recognize, follow, and retain your argument. It will make your book infinitely more readable, more persuasive, and more memorable.

Why? Because readers expect to follow where an author leads them, but they don’t like to follow blindly. Readers of non-fiction expect the author to explain beforehand where it is that they are being led. They want and frankly demand that you as an author give them a hint as to where they are going before they will agree to take the journey with you.

Think back to Jr. High English class, and the rules you learned about how to write an essay. For many of us this was probably our first introduction into non-story-driven writing. If your English teacher was half as awesome as mine was (shout out to Mrs. Bresmer!) then you will probably turn 112 long before you forget the three rules of essay writing:

1. Tell your reader what you’re going to talk about

2. Talk about it

3. Tell them what you’ve just been talking about

It’s all about building familiarity, trust, and comfort for the reader. A strong non-fiction structure builds anticipation. It creates expectation. And it gives the readers the tools that they need to engage with the material that you present to them in each section of your book as a part of a greater whole.

Just like a plot serves to create and fulfill expectations in a story, a well structured non-fiction book will give the reader an expectation of what they will be reading. It does this by building anticipation, creating questions that need answers, and offering a large-scale overview of the subject matter long before it delves into the details.

From there a well-structured book will begin to fulfill those expectations in a familiar and comfortable way. It will begin to answer the questions, to address the issues, to solve the problems. But it will always do it in a way that feels like a logical progression of the same argument or discussion.

That’s not always easily done, especially without the convenience of chronology to lean on. That is why it is so important to consider your book’s structure BEFORE you being to write.