One of the more mysterious concepts in writing and editing is that of “voice”. Here’s how to find your writing voice (it can take a long time, but you’ll get there!).
The author biography in the front of Terry Pratchett novels says that he started work as a journalist one day in 1965 and saw his first corpse three hours later, work experience meaning something in those days. The bio continues:
“After doing just about every job it’s possible to do in provincial journalism, except of course covering Saturday afternoon football, he joined the Central Electricity Generating Board and became press officer for four nuclear power stations. He’d write a book about his experiences if he thought anyone would believe it.”
I started work as a journalist in 1984. I got a lot of work and writing experience, and eventually found myself working as a sub-editor. Never once in my years as a reporter did I see a corpse – and I also never covered a sports match. Later, when I was on the editing side of things, I did (once) write a column for the sports page, if I remember rightly about the local rugby team.
Years later, in my first stint as a freelancer, I wondered if I could write a column about cricket, my first love in sport. I wrote something and sent it to a local editor who was very kind, but rejected it. He said I needed to find my voice.
At the time I felt a bit put out. What did he mean by “finding my voice”, anyway, I thought.
How I found my writing voice
I got over it and moved on with my life. And it wasn’t until I worked as the lifestyle editor at Independent Online that I started to understand what that editor had meant. It seems that lifestyle editors are expected to write columns, and so I started doing that. My first efforts were largely opinion pieces about issues like women’s day (I don’t like it).
But then I started writing about my experiences as a working mother – and hey presto: there was my voice. Caring and celebratory – but also wry and just a tad cynical.
The column that does the wry look at life was this one: How to fail at being middle-class
Caring and celebratory? Here’s a good one: Why we love old recipe books
And that’s the voice that you’ll hear in everything I write, to this day. There’s a lot less parenthood, and a lot more attempts to be helpful to writers, editors and small business people, but the voice remains the same.
What is a writer’s voice anyway?
A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.
I can’t really say it any better than they have: it’s the focus on personality that’s important. In my own case, it took me a long time to find my voice because it took me a long time to become confident about expressing my personality.
How to find your own writer’s voice
The New York Times has some good tips:
- Think about your past writing. When do you think you sound most like yourself? Is it when you write in a journal? In an email or text to a particular friend? When you write on your favourite social media platform? Look at that writing and see if you can identify patterns.
- Think about how you express yourself in other ways. Think about how you speak, the way you dress, or things you create.
- Make a list of the things that strike you about your voice. Do you use a lot of slang? Do you love “big” words? Do you tend to go off on tangents when you talk, or do you stick to the point? Are you loud or quiet? Funny or serious?
My own thoughts:
- Read a lot. The more you read in the language in which you will be writing, the better your grasp of that language will be. Once you know your way around a language, you can express yourself in it.
- Relax. Write as you would speak, as you would tell the story to a friend, and see what you come up with.
- Look and listen. Observe everything around you. Then to listen to your own responses. Your amusement when your middle-class friends register shock, your memories when someone talks about an old recipe (as examples) – all these are the foundations of a voice.
If I think back on my writing career now, I see that when I started out, writing simple news reports, I was just doing what I had been taught. I was also young, and still growing in to myself. Once I learned to listen to, and trust, my own observations of the world, I was listening to my own voice. And the steps to writing in that voice lay clear in front of me.
Main picture: ZHONG Liguo, Unsplash
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