Five Steps to Finding Your Voice
Writers worry constantly over how they sound. They worry that they don’t sound smart enough, hip enough, deep enough, or worst of all, writerly enough. That their writing is regressing, that everyone will find out that they’re faking it, that they’re frauds, that the only thing they know about writing is banging out words on a keyboard, and that sometimes, those words don’t even make sense. They worry that they don’t have a good voice.
But here’s the big secret: they--and you--probably already have a wonderful, authentic voice that is all your own. One that will endear you to readers and give your stories that elusive transportive quality you’ve been searching for. The key is freeing it from your preconceived notions of what a good voice is. See, the goal of writing isn’t to write just like George R. R. Martin, or to sound writerly, or even to obey all the grammar and spelling rules. The goal of writing is to tell a damn good story. And that means you can’t afford to let your writing get in the way of what you have to say.
Good writing sounds effortless, natural, and 100% authentic. Which means that when it comes to your voice, you are at your best when you’re just being you. Sounds easy right? I mean, you practically live with yourself! But believe it or not, most people spend so much time listening to other people’s voices, that they aren’t the best acquainted with their own. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you find, get to know, and finally claim your voice.
Step One: Getting to Know You
This is my favorite part. This is where you start to define what it means to be you—what your voice encompasses and evokes. Basically, you know what you do for your characters? We’re going to do that for you. Because, in many ways, finding your voice is defining your character on the world-wide stage.
Your voice is essentially the embodiment of your personality. So, to start, come up with three or four adjectives that you feel really fit your personality. Like sharp, friendly, honest, irreverent, witty, charming, or cheeky. Next, try to pick the three or four songs that perfectly express those parts of you. You’ll know you’ve hit it when the songs suit your mood so perfectly they are completely unobtrusive—as if they belong there. Try writing about your favorite hobby while playing this soundtrack in the background, and see what happens.
Step Two: And All Your Hats
Of course, you’re not just one mood—nor do you wear just one hat. You are a person of many hats you wear with many different people—a wayward son, an outlaw lover, but also a friend, programmer, martial arts student, and gardening enthusiast. Just so, you will have multiple voices you can use, depending on the situation—each one of them indelibly and undeniably you.
Try expanding those three tracks into a twelve-track soundtrack to your life. Make sure you encompass the adjectives you came up with before, as well as the many roles you play in your life. Once you are done, try writing about a major turning point in your life—like the moment you first realized you were an adult and that no one could stop you from eating ice cream for breakfast. Or the moment that you first realized you wanted to be a writer, or programmer, or sea slug groomer.
Step Three: If You Were a Noodle…
All right, so now our hero’s story has a soundtrack. But a story isn’t made of sounds alone. Flesh out your understanding of your voice by adding the other senses. If your voice were a color, would it be summer sky blue, or burnished copper? Is it more crisp and refreshing like a mojito, or smooth and musky like merlot? Is it more the scent of vanilla or fresh-cut grass? More the texture of birch bark or bread dough? These might sound silly, but bear with me: figuring out what your voice evokes can be incredibly helpful in understanding it.
Now try describing the perfect day as though you were telling a good friend, keeping those descriptors in mind. This day can be a real day you experienced, or even just a theoretical day. Make sure to talk about everything that made it so great—from the food and how it smelled, to the color of the sky and the feel of the wind, to what activities you did.
Step Four: Express Yourself!
Kvothe the Bloodless spent almost a year without speaking, alone in the woods, learning how to play things as easily as he saw them, like “Wind Turning a Leaf,” “Singing with Father by the Fire,” and “Calloused Fingers and a Lute with Four Strings.” He was finding his voice with the lute—and, having found it, it is said he could make stones crack with heartbreak and trees shed their leaves unseasonably in sorrow. You, too, can benefit from a Kvothean journey in pursuit of your voice. Though, you don’t have to spend a year in isolation to work on it.
Instead, try an hour a week. In that hour, experiment with expressing heart-wrenching sorrow, transcendent joy, utter embarrassment—as well as rage, regret, and wistfulness. Try changing your atmosphere to suit your theme and see how it changes your voice. This can be as simple as turning out the lights and scented lighting candles, or as extravagant as writing while sitting on the rocks overlooking a waterfall.
Step Five: Write Dead Letters
Writing letters can allow you to tap into that natural, conversational voice that you use when talking to a good friend. Of course, you don’t actually have to send the letters—writing to a comfortable audience is the important part. You can also use a diary as a place to confide and practice expressing yourself. In fact, writing in a diary regularly is supposedly one of the top contributing factors to writing well, and, as a bonus, most of Adele’s songs supposedly start as diary entries.
Either way you choose, try starting by writing about really good book you read recently, or a funny experience you had, or even just what you did last week. But after that, try writing to different people—like your mother, your favorite teacher, or a long-lost friend. And then, trying writing as different people, like try writing as a war hero writing to their lover at home, as a cat to their owner when their owner brings in a new kitten, or as Darth Vader to his diary about detaining his daughter for the first time. Always be sure to read them aloud, to see if they’re actually something you would actually say. If you have writers’ block, try telling a story to a friend (or even an imaginary friend!) and just record and transcribe it.
Don’t be judgmental on your true voice if it sounds funny at first--your voice is fundamentally you, and gosh darn it, people like you. This doesn’t mean you can’t work on or practice techniques, but always try to write from your heart—from the place that is honest and uncomplicated. And when you’re looking to expand your writing, look to expand yourself by reading more widely, experiencing more variety, and living life to its fullest. That should give you more than a few stories to tell.