Writing is a powerful—and unique—creative experience. It’s one of a small number of creative pursuits that can be done largely alone, and many writers share the experience of starting off in solitude, writing just for themselves. As rewarding as writing for yourself can be, there comes a time for most of us when we want to share our work and get some (hopefully positive) feedback and engagement on it—and that’s often when we discover that carving out a unique voice for your writing isn’t as easy as it seems.
Voice is your writing DNA: the combination of grammar, vocabulary, cadence and rhythm, and structural choices that you make with every sentence you write. Unlike actual DNA, however, your writer Voice can be changed at will. Whether you realized it or not, when you first started writing your Voice evolved constantly, probably without you even noticing.
The foundation of a writer’s Voice is instinctual in most cases, and often closely resembles the way you communicate verbally—we often start off writing how we speak. Once you get your sea legs under you and you know you can write coherently and engagingly, the next step up is to realize you don’t have to write how you speak—you’re in complete control of your Voice. And you have to make sure your Voice stands out.
Like a lot of other aspects of your writing, when you start shaping your Voice consciously it will likely begin as an imitation of other writers. Reading is fundamental to your development, and as you read you’ll steal bits and pieces of other people’s work, both consciously and unconsciously. Charming turns of phrase, interesting (and purposeful) violations of grammar rules, unexpected vocabulary choices—every time another author delights you, your brain absorbs that bit of style and spits it back out the next time you’re putting words on a page.
For example, in my (very) impressionable youth I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I found his use of footnotes to be a fascinating and fun technique, so I stole it. I began dropping footnotes into my own work, and still do when working on certain types of projects.
Reading to discover what makes another writer’s Voice interesting is a great way to get started. Modeling their Voice in your work is a good way to begin refining your own. The trick is to break down the Voice that inspires you into components so you can understand what specifically appeals to you—what it is you can steal. Don’t just copy someone else’s style wholesale. That won’t help you craft a unique persona.
Your ultimate goal when developing a Voice is to wind up with a writing style that is instantly recognizable as you. People who enjoy your work should be able to identify you as the author from just a few lines. The classic example of a writer with a Voice so distinct you can identify their work from a glance is Ernest Hemingway—short, unadorned sentences, forceful, active phrasing, and the legendary “Iceberg approach” to detail make it very easy to recognize Hemingway even if you’ve only read a few examples of his work. And plenty of young writers fall into imitating Hemingway’s almost journalistic Voice at some point in their careers (hello, why are my ears suddenly burning?), but you have to take what you like from it and then bring in your own refinements or you’ll wind up that writer who always sounds like a Hemingway wannabe. Hemingway himself took much of his Voice from his experience writing for newspapers as a young man, but he took that spare, direct style and refined it into a Voice uniquely his own.
Once you’ve established the foundations of a unique Voice and your writing becomes recognizable as yours no matter the subject or the context, your next step is to understand how you got there. Writing is often an instinctive act, something we simply do and can’t explain. Relying on a natural affinity for words can take you pretty far, but you’ll struggle to repeat a trick you don’t know how you pulled off in the first place. If you don’t understand your Voice’s components, you will struggle to apply it effectively—you’ll be relying on subconscious magic instead of a clear understanding of your craft.
This means sitting down and pulling your Voice apart. What makes it yours? What’s the tone—humorous, cynical, deadpan? What rhythmic properties set your work apart—do you use a lot of dashes or other connectors, or a lot of commas to create beats within sentences? Are there specific turns of phrase you purposefully repeat, or unusual vocabulary choices (I’ve personally become so fond of dropping “cromulent” into my writing it’s becoming part of my brand)? Do you employ techniques like hyperbole or emotional, dramatic writing?
The reason you pick your Voice apart is so you can strip it down to its core. Controlling your Voice in your writing isn’t just a matter of developing it and then writing, it’s all about calibration. The more you understand the different threads that come together to form your Voice, the more fine control you have over it.
Once you have chosen a writer (or several) to model your Voice on, the key to refining it into something uniquely yours is similar to improving your writing in general: Practice.
In the beginning, that might mean slavishly copying your models—and that’s okay, as long as you’re conscious of what you’re doing. Part of understanding why someone’s Voice is so recognizable and enjoyable is backward-engineering it, seeing the different pieces that create the effect you like so much. Then you can start tweaking, adding and removing elements, emphasizing different aspects of the Voice. For example, I found that what I liked about Wallace’s footnote technique wasn’t the lengthy, article-length interruptions but the snappy, often humorous gags he sprinkled throughout. I started using footnotes in some of my writing to toss in jokes and humorous asides, and I discovered that by doing so I was able to keep the integrity of an argument in the main article and have a lot of fun in the margins with the footnotes. I’d taken an idea from another writer and bent it slightly to fit my own sensibilities.
Once you have established your Voice, don’t let it get stuck in amber. Just like every other aspect of your writing, the key to keeping your Voice vibrant and unique is to be open to evolution. If you’re writing the same kinds of material years from now, using the same literary devices and in the same Voice, you’ve stopped growing artistically. If your work was at a very high level you—and other people—might not notice for a while, but eventually you’ll find yourself producing stale, uninteresting work. How often can you write the same stories, in the same Voice, before everyone—including you—gets bored and walks away? Hint: Not too long.
This doesn’t mean abandoning your Voice and starting from scratch. It means being open to innovations, adjustments, and new elements that complement what you’ve already developed. Keeping your Voice fresh will keep your readers interested and keep you excited about the work you’re doing.
Your Voice is part of your brand, part of what sets you apart from other authors. Once you’ve figured it out, the next step is to think about how it applies across all of your writing. If you have a clear, distinct, and interesting Voice when writing fiction but a bland, uninteresting Voice when posting to social media, you’re not going to get as many people racing to check out your work simply because they’ll be bored—and will never imagine in a million years that underneath that bland promotional patter is a writer with a sharp and unique Voice. The reverse situation is also a problem: If your social Voice is compelling and distinct but your articles or works of fiction sound like everyone else, you might convince people to check you out, but they won’t convert into readers.
The trick is to adapt your Voice for different modes. I’d say I have four different Voices: Fiction, Serious Freelance, Fun Freelance, and Social Media. There’s no hard rule about this—it’s my Voice and I can warp, tweak, or drop it as I see fit. But generally speaking all of my writing loosely slots into one of those categories (Serious and Fun Freelance simply refers to tone—some freelance work is intended to be more journalistic and objective, some is more personality-driven and, well, fun) and my writing Voice shifts based on that. But you want readers to see you in everything you write, so it’s not a matter of having completely different Voices for different projects, but rather different flavors of the same Voice:
Social media writing often has to be more concise and efficient than other forms of writing. My Voice tends to be chatty, with those aforementioned footnotes and lots of asides and absurd jokes about living the pantsless life. But social media doesn’t often allow for verbosity, so I have adapted the same tone and style as in the humorous footnotes in my freelance work in my social media posts. My Tweets are often essentially dislodged footnotes from my work, floating free. If someone reads a social media post and checks out a linked article I wrote, they’re going to know immediately that it was all written by the same slightly ridiculous person.
Fiction is a different animal, of course. You don’t write a freelance article using the same style as a short story, and the same applies to your Voice. Fiction writing is obviously very different from both casual social media writing and non-fiction, freelance-style writing. And when writing fiction with its different characters, points-of-view, and broader range of tools and craft it’s difficult—and ill-advised—to try to make everything sound like you. Your author Voice is you, not your characters. You can—and should, probably!—develop characters who are very different from you, and who speak in very different ways.
That being said there are writers who don’t really have much separation between their own Voice and the voice of their characters—separating Kurt Vonnegut’s non-fiction Voice from his fiction is impossible, for example. But, that’s the twist: Vonnegut’s chatty style that never lets you forget he’s the one telling the story is part of his Voice. It’s a choice he made, and he worked hard to develop a Voice that allowed him to effortlessly mix the fictional, the personal, and the journalistic in all of his writing. You could make the same choice and develop a similar Voice, as long as you remember to find a way to make it your own so your secret author nickname (we all have one) isn’t Vonnegut Wannabe.
The key is to ensure that enough of your unique Voice carries over to your fiction so that people will recognize a strand or two of your Voice. This could be the rhythm of your sentences, specific vocabulary choices, or techniques. For example, I rarely employ footnotes in my fiction—but if I wanted to mark a story as inarguably mine inserting humorous notes throughout a story would be a very effective way to accomplish that.
When you’re being paid to write something for someone else, you’re not fully in control of the Voice and style you’ll be employing—but if you’ve done the work to deconstruct your Voice into its component parts, you can still ensure that it’s perceptible. The key here is picking out the aspects of your Voice that don’t conflict with the style and tone you’re required to deliver. This could be a specific rhythm you employ when constructing your sentences, vocabulary choices, or even adjusted forms. For example, if you love footnotes as much as I do, you might still employ them in your freelance writing projects but use them to inform and comment instead of amuse and distract.
Your approach to holding onto your Voice when someone else is dictating a lot of the style and approach will vary from project to project, and you’ll have varying success as a result. But it’s important to make the effort, because if you can discover and maintain a consistent thread that links all of your writing together—no matter the subject, the genre, or the purpose of it—you’ll have a powerful tool for establishing, maintaining, and communicating your brand—in a sense, you’ll be getting paid to promote your brand.
Juggling all of these different Voice modes can be tricky, especially since you’re trying to maintain some consistency between social, fiction, and non-fiction modes. There are a few simple tricks you can employ that can help you to shift between Voice applications when you have several different projects to work on:
- Re-read. If it’s a project you’ve worked on before, go back and re-read some of the last work you did. This is especially helpful when switching to freelance work because you might have several clients, but it can also help you recapture how you were applying your Voice to a work of fiction. This doesn’t need to be a lengthy piece of writing—just a few sentences is often all you’ll need to snap back into a specific approach.
- Role play. Something I do sometimes if I’m having trouble getting back into a specific mindset is to imagine myself as a character in my story, or as someone reading a story or article I’m working on. This often snaps me back into the right version of my Voice because I can see everything from the “other side,” so to speak.
- Back to basics. Another technique that can help you get back into the version of your Voice you need for a specific piece of writing is to go back to the beginning and treat it as if it was the first bit of work you’re doing. If it’s a freelance project, break out all the startup documents and review all your initial communications with the client—then attack the new work as if you were just starting the project. If it’s a piece of fiction, go back to your initial notes—your outlines, your character sketches, your early drafts—and write chapter 30 as if it was chapter 1.
Developing a unique Voice for your writing—all of your writing—is a necessary step in your journey as a professional author. It’s also a deeply satisfying aspect of the work, because it’s all about making your mark in a business that’s centered on originality and creativity. The good news is, you’re already a unique and creative person—all you need to do is to put some work into codifying your naturally unique perspective and experience into an unforgettable Voice.