“This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.”
— Brenda Euland, author of If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit
Writers often speak of finding their voice—as if, perhaps, it is hidden in a closet or under a rock. If only it were that simple. Voice isn’t something you find. It’s something you shape and tame as you learn to tell your stories, share your thoughts, and express your emotions.
We each have a voice. It’s both what we have to say and how we say it. It’s the message along with the emotion, the language, the accent, the pacing and emphasis, the way we tell a story and much more. The challenge of the writer is to convey that with the written word—without sound, facial expressions or body language. In addition to sharing the story or information, it must also convey something about the person behind the pen.
That said, not all writing is intended to have a voice—or at least not the voice of the writer. News writing, for instance, should be just the facts (though, hopefully conveyed in an interesting way). Corporate writing should reflect the image and voice of a company, while adhering to general guidelines established for such things as press releases, advertising or newsletters. Much magazine and non-fiction book writing tends to reflect the publisher’s voice more than the author's (or, at least, a blend of the two),, and follows tightly defined style guidelines. By contrast, fiction writers must develop multiple voices—those of each of their characters—in addition to their own distinctive writing style.
Although I work primarily as a visual artist these days, writing has been the anchor throughout most of my career in marketing communications and publishing. I spent most of those years using others’ voices—writing speeches for CEOs and creating company messages. As a magazine editor, I helped contributors (who were experts and enthusiasts in their field rather than professional writers) find their own voices. Even when I wrote gardening books, there were strict style guidelines to follow.
So when it came to writing a more personal book, I was suddenly faced with finding my own voice. I had to learn to listen to myself, or at least to those voices in my head. In particular, I turned to my journals and to my lifelong love for writing letters. Each of these informed my writing as I began to embrace my own writing voice—one that (at least I hope) is conversational in style and relies heavily on storytelling. I’m still working on it, and suppose I will be as long as I continue to write.
Part of developing your voice as a writer is learning to write. And to rewrite—not just a quick pass over your work, but many passes with a critical eye. Learning to write also comes from reading—especially books by those with distinctive voices. I love memoirs and life stories told in first person. One must also learn to listen—both to the way you talk and the ways others talk; notice the differences. Life experiences help, too, but vary in importance depending upon what you write about. For me, the most important part of finding my voice has simply been writing—putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard on a regular basis, even if it is just to write in my journal. Finding one’s writing voice takes time and practice and emerges slowly.
Questions arise along the way to developing a writing voice. For me, some of these included: Should my style be more personal, professional or creative in nature? How open am I to sharing my own life experiences, and how vulnerable am I willing to be? There were also questions of style: when to follow traditional writing guidelines and when to break them for emphasis. Your questions may be different.
How would you characterize your voice (writing or otherwise)? How has it evolved? What experiences have influenced your voice? What stories do you have to tell? What inner emotions, experiences or ideas do you need to give voice to?
Want to learn more about writing and finding your voice? Two of the best books I’ve read on the subject are If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Euland and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. Both are slim, delightful-to-read volumes you can pick up for under $10.