The Non-Fiction Writer’s Voice

A few weeks ago I was talking to a young lady at my church. We got on the topic of dreams and goals, and she started telling me how she never really had any aspirations for herself when she was growing up. She never wanted or expected to BE anything. This, of course, led to a conversation about God-given dreams, and allowing ourselves to expand our dreams until they look like God’s dreams for us. Basically, it was a real-life discussion of one of the major themes in Dream Chasers. So before the conversation was over, I ran to my bookshelf and found a copy to give her.

A few days ago we had a second conversation and she said something that I simply wasn’t expecting. She said, “My favorite thing about reading your book is that I can hear your voice when I read it. It sounds just like you!”

Yup, her favorite thing about the book (so far … I hope) was that the writer’s voice was a familiar one. She could recognize my turn of phrase, my speech patterns, my personal style. And that got me thinking about an author’s voice, and how absolutely vital it is to find and cultivate a voice that stays true to who you are, especially when you write non-fiction.

You see even though we’re writing non-fiction, we still have a responsibility to be compelling. Whether we’re telling a story, making an argument, or explaining a process, we want our readers to remain engaged. Maybe someone will pick up your book because they’re interested in your topic, but if your voice doesn’t capture their imagination, they won’t read on to the end. And they certainly won’t pick up your next book. But if a reader likes the WAY you write, if they like the voice you use, they’ll pick up your next book even if they don’t care about the topic, just because they want to read what you’re writing.

How do I know this? Because I love reading non-fiction! But I don’t love specific categories or topics. I love individual authors. I’ll pick up a book if the title or the topic catches my interest, but I can normally tell within the first chapter whether I’ll be able to read through to the end (because I like the author’s voice) or if I’m going to be putting it down and never picking it up again.

In fact, it just happened to me a few months ago. I was delayed at an airport, browsing through the bookstore, and found a book on an aspect of the Revolutionary War that I thought just HAD to be gripping.  Nope. Not even close. There was nothing wrong with the book, but I was so put off by the writer’s narrative style that I closed the book after 12 pages. It’s on my bookshelf now, but I know I’ll probably never open it again.

On the other hand, there are authors who I enjoy so much that I’ll read anything they write, even when it’s not a topic I care about. Why? Because I’m confident that they can make me care about it. Their writing is so compelling, so entertaining, so engaging that I feel safe in their hands. Regardless of what they’re going to say, I know I’m going to enjoy how they say it.

THAT is the kind of writer we all want to be. But how do we get there. How do we get all our readers thinking (or at least subconsciously recognizing) that you sound like you?

Well, first its important to breathe a little life into your writing from time to time. Remember that nonfiction doesn’t mean dull and lifeless. If you read your work out loud and you sound like a professor reading out of a textbook, something’s wrong. You should sound like the professor that teaches the textbook material in a way that the students understand and enjoy!

Secondly, you should take the time to figure out what makes you unique as a writer. What are your strengths? Are you funny? Are you a good storyteller? Are you sarcastic? Are you persuasive? Can you paint images with your words? Can you present tons of details in a way that illuminates the bigger picture? Whatever those strengths are, embrace them! Use them! They’re what make you sound like YOU, and your readers will come to want and expect those things.

Thirdly, remember to remain consistent. Even if you switch between wildly different topics, structures, or genres, your readers should recognize that you’re the one writing it. Your writing will, of course, change and mature as you go. But if you’re staying true to your voice, it will show.

Forth, own it! Your writing is yours. It might not sound like anyone else’s, and that’s a good thing. You don’t want to be an imitation of your favorite authors. You want to be your readers’ new favorite author. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the things you like about other people’s writing. But if you try to put on a voice that isn’t your own, it will just end up sounding fake and hollow in the end.

Fifth, let your voice flow over into your marketing. If you have a thriving blog, it’s probably because your readers like reading what you write. And trust me – it’s not because you’re always coming up with unique or fascinating topics. It’s because people enjoy you! The same is true for the books you write. So make sure that when you’re tweeting a fan, composing FB posts, or putting together your website that you are representing yourself the way your readers expect.

Sixth, remember that the more your writing voice actually sounds like you, the more naturally you will be able to transition into other writer-related things (blogging, for instance, giving interviews, or speaking at events). Your fans will be able to connect to you so much easier if the you they meet in person or see on TV (we wish, right?) sounds like the you they’ve come to know and love on paper.

So to recap, find your voice – not someone else’s, but yours – and own it. Let your personality and your tone seep into every writing project you come across. it will help to define your brand and ultimately it will win over your readers!

So what do you guys think? How do you define a writer’s voice? Have you ever tried to define your own? How important do you think your voice is to your writing success? Leave me a comment and let me know!