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You Need to Define Your Writing Voice Before You Can Refine It

April 5, 2021

If you’ve ever gone hunting for advice on finding your writing voice, your brain is undoubtedly tuckered out. Many tips are vague at best and confusing or contradictory at worst.

 

Some claim that voice develops over time. But that leaves you wondering when it will appear to you in a poof of smoke. Others treat it like a supernatural gift that some writers have and others don’t. So helpful, right?

 

Mystical theories aside, a few suggestions you’ll see floating around are actually semi-practical, such as “try free-writing to learn what comes naturally to you,” “your writing voice is comprised of your quirks, so lean into those,” or “just focus on crafting unique character voices.”

 

Those quick tricks, however, skirt what your writing voice truly is: a clear, well-rounded expression of your personality. It’s that simple. Style has an effect, but your voice is more an outpouring of how you view yourself than how you choose to apply techniques.

 

What if you had a straightforward, actionable strategy for identifying and improving your writing voice? While you can spend years refining every nuance of your voice, you can define it today just by answering three questions.

 

Question #1: What Is Quintessentially You?

The first step toward distinguishing your writing voice is self-discovery. What makes friends and family comment that only you would do this or say that? What sorts of themes and situations stir your soul? What adjectives would you describe yourself with? Comedic? Encouraging? Fierce? Private? Impulsive? People-pleasing? For now, don’t worry if you jot down paradoxes. Everyone has both a silly side and a serious side. Later on you can accentuate one trait over another if you need to.

 

To use myself as a case study, despite having a fairly sheltered childhood and a positive attitude, I love stories of sadness, struggle, and doubt (though not necessarily with dismal endings). Also, my desire to inspire readers drives me to tackle epic stories featuring themes and characters that come across as intense and archetypal.

 

Beware, however, of assuming that your coping mechanisms reveal your real self. I act extra formal or self-controlled when I’m nervous, but that doesn’t mean I should let the tone of my prose turn stiff. In fact, you may want to investigate how your coping mechanisms are damaging your writing voice, because they’ve probably been creeping in unnoticed.

 

Self-discovery is nebulous, so approach it carefully. Don’t allow your culture or subculture to influence you. That may sound as clichéd as Disney’s “follow your heart” gospel, but rather than a call to indulge in your sinful instincts without regard to others, it’s a call to embrace the fragment of God’s image that you most represent.

 

If you’ve never seriously dared to be your own person, start your journey now with four exercises:

 

  1. Ask yourself idealistic questions: What would I do if I wasn’t afraid anymore? If I could dream up a job to match all my talents and hobbies, what would it look like? Where would I live if I had no financial limitations?
  2. Analyze yourself through typology systems like Myers-Briggs and the enneagram. Whether or not you believe in personality assessments, they can offer excellent insight into your inner psyche. (Note: Most sites explain these concepts on a shallow, generic level. But Myers-Briggs only makes sense when you’re deeply familiar with the cognitive functions, and the enneagram only makes sense when you’re deeply familiar with the instinctual variants. I recommend checking out these resources to ensure accuracy: Type in Mind, the Objective Personality YouTube channel, and Info from the Underground.)
  3. Talk about your passions or journal your feelings and impressions. You’ll understand yourself best when you externalize your mind.
  4. Invite a friend to join you. Grow together!

Although your writing voice is, in a sense, part of you already, you can’t coax it out if you’re a stranger to yourself. Instead, you’re liable to churn out muddled material that relies on clichés and other authors’ voices as a safety net. The more you strive to know yourself, the more you’ll recognize how complex human beings are. And the more you learn about humanity, the more richness you’ll be able to layer into your voice.

 

Question #2: What Books Do You Enjoy Reading?

Hopefully, you read widely. If not, you may never perfect your writing voice. Explore many authors, genres, and styles. Then drill yourself:

 

  • What are my favorite genres, and why?
  • What are my favorite sub-genres, and why?
  • Who are my favorite authors, and why?
  • What kind of prose captivates me?
  • Do I prefer minimalistic or immersive setting descriptions?
  • Do I prefer long, flowing chapters or short, punchy ones?
  • Do I prefer everyday protagonists or larger-than-life ones?

As you record your answers, you’ll assemble an image of the characteristics you want to reflect. You may even pick up a few flourishes to round out your style or ideas you can reshape. Personally, I look to Sanderson for mega plots, Paton and Dostoevsky for raw, vulnerable scenes, and Patrick Rothfuss, Marcus Zusak, Stuart Turton, and Leigh Bardugo for prose.

 

At this point, you’re either feeling sheepish, wrestling scruples, or frowning at me for seemingly capsizing my earlier advice. Shouldn’t you be yourself instead of imitating other authors?

 

Yes—but not at first.

 

Studying the masters can rocket-blast you forward so that, eventually, you crash into your voice. You just have to persevere. When I wrote my fairy-tale novelette God of Manna, I attempted to swirl metaphors around like Marcus Zusak (who is such a magician with words that I was drooling with envy).

 

My writing face-planted. Splat!

 

Turns out I wasn’t Marcus Zusak. However, after I relaxed and surrendered to the plain old me, not only did my writing rise a couple notches in quality, it excelled anything I’d produced before. Zusak’s brilliance—the aspects that meshed with the true me—had stuck.

 

Before settling into your voice, invest time in copying the masters. You may be surprised at how their artistry leaks into yours.

 

Question 3: What Brand and Legacy Do You Hope to Build?

Writers who aren’t marketing savvy often don’t consider how to best reach their ideal readers. So their forays into publishing and the online sphere involve a mishmash of their interests. After all, writing in a zillion different styles is fun—and attracts bigger audiences, right?

 

Wrong. Although the True You™ may encompass a host of idiosyncrasies, genres, and styles, if you put everything on display, readers will struggle to connect with (and remember) your work.

 

You need to narrow down the spectrum for three reasons:

 

  1. Some styles scream “you” more loudly than others. Would you have been happy if O’Henry wrote morbid medical thrillers? No! You’ll only be amazing at a small selection of styles too, so concentrate on those.
  2. If you specialize, you can turn into an expert. Have you ever finished a story and thought, I bet I can pull off that technique even better next time! I certainly have. Whether it’s research for historical fiction, balancing multiple plot lines, or depicting a character with a disability, repeating the technique in multiple projects can cause it to become second nature. (Just don’t do this ad infinitum like Henty.)
  3. Your audience expects consistency. You may be fond of both goofy and grim adventure stories, but if you transition between each of those, you’ll give some readers whiplash and alienate others. When all or most of your books have similarities, marketing is far easier.

Now, to be clear, brand and legacy, while closely related, are not the same. Each one plays a distinct role in how you portray yourself to your followers.

 

Your brand is the persona that makes you recognizable and creates a unified vibe across your fiction, emails, social media platforms, blog posts, and more. Readers then decide whether you’re in their “tribe,” and if you are, they’ll keep returning for more content.

 

Branding shapes your writing voice with questions like:

 

  • What sells well?
  • What is my existing brand? (This mostly applies to famous people. If you don’t have a widespread reputation yet, changing your brand will be much less of a hassle.)
  • What market segments do I naturally jibe with?

Here’s an example of how branding can transform your writing: let’s say you’re always binging hardboiled detective novels. However, when you encounter other fans of the genre, you feel like an outsider. Most of them have backgrounds that are rougher than yours, refer to shows you’ve never heard of, and discuss topics that are over your head. You sound ultra-polite and sweet in the emails you send, and you adore kids. You can write great hardboiled detective stories, but it requires massive amounts of energy, and you can’t seem to please your intended audience. Maybe you should write cozy mysteries for kids instead.

 

While branding aims at standing out now, legacy roots you in readers’ memories for decades to come. To circle back to the previous example, since you’re having trouble breaking into the market, your agent advises you to find a niche. You got bullied while growing up, so you start writing mysteries about kids facing abuse from their peers, providing a legacy of hope to those victims.

 

Blending It All Together

Imagine a Venn diagram of the True You™. The overlap between the styles you’re drawn to and the brand and legacy you aspire to achieve is where you’ll unearth your writing voice.

 

Even after you’ve pinpointed your voice, though, you’ll inevitably itch to tweak it as you gain experience. To save yourself frustration, follow these two guidelines:

 

  1. Start small. Test out your voice on short stories. Does it click? Are you thrilled with it, or disappointed? Experiment broadly until you’re satisfied with the results.
  2. Launch small. For your first release, try something low-risk like a standalone novelette. That way, if your branding is off, or you realize you need to significantly alter your style, you won’t lose too much.

Knowing your writing voice by heart will boost your confidence in your skills, as well as your personality.

 

What fingerprint will you leave on the world?

3 Comments

  1. Madelyn

    Wow, this article is awesome! You made some great points!
    I have recently been working to define my writing voice, and I would most definitely agree that writing short stories/flash fiction is an excellent method! The whole process has been a rewarding experience.
    I will be referring back to this in the future 🙂
    Great job!

    Reply
  2. Rachel L.

    This was very interesting and helpful! Probably the first clear description of writer voice that I’ve ever heard. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Joelle Stone

    “What fingerprint will you leave on the world?” Loved that!

    Reply

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