Thursday, May 5, 2011

12 Tips to Finding Your Voice

"How do I find my voice?  How do I know I'm using the right one?"  Just like the word "style," "voice" can be a confusing term when you're just starting out and writing to please an editor.  But all you really need to know is:

1.  Write like you talk. One of my favorite comments from a former workshop participant who had just finished reading The Essential Guide for New Writers was, “The book sounds just like you.  Every time I read it, I'm right back in your class.”  Bingo!

2.  Write like you're writing a journal entry.  A great way to let your natural voice emerge is to pretend you're only writing for yourself.  I find it always helps to write my first drafts in my journal, and by hand. 

3.  Freewrite, especially when you're "stuck."  Try setting a timer anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes and just start writing.  Don't think, just write.  You'll be so busy you won't have time to worry about the "sound" of your writing, and that means the sound will be natural and 100% you.

4.  Avoid censoring your "first thoughts."  So what if your freewriting grammar is non-existent, you've misspelled every other word, and your "first thoughts" are far from pretty?  Who's to care?  The point is to get words on paper--words that are yours alone.

5.  Examine why you feel the need to censor.  Sometimes when we let loose with those first thoughts, they can be pretty shocking.  We think of all the people our words could hurt or embarrass, or who might reject us for being ourselves--especially for being our "shadow selves."  One way to conquer these worries is to set aside some time to list the people you think would be upset by your writing and why.   Once you have your list, work on solutions.  For instance, you might need to write under a pseudonym, or you might want to keep your writing private until after it's published.

6.  Walk in your characters' shoes.  Another good trick to find your authentic voice is to let your characters do the talking.  Ask them interview-type questions:  "What is the worst thing that ever happened to you as a child?"  "What do you love/hate about your current job?"  "Where would you go on your dream vacation?"  Then sit back with your pen and paper and take dictation-style notes.

7.  Write in the first person.  The easiest way to get into a main character's head and voice is to write from the first person point of view.  If you don't particularly care for that POV in the finished work, you can always rewrite in third person later.  The idea is to be as open and true to your character(s) as possible in your first draft so that you have something to work with down the road.

 8.  Give your "worst" thoughts/voice for your characters.  Assign your shadow side to your characters--especially your villains.  Give them every negative thought you've ever had and let them run with it.  Not only is this extremely cathartic, it's also an excellent way to personalize a believable voice. 

9.  Write poetry.  Really! Poetry practice can lead you to your individual sense of rhythm and language.  Poetry forces you to take breaths between words and lines, thereby helping you discover if your true voice is direct and to-the-point, or more comfortable weaving back and forth in a tapestry of emotion and nuanced subtlety.  Poetry can also force you to reach for unusual word combinations and uses, sparking your creativity.

10.  Keep a shelf of authors whose voices you admire.  Go to your bookshelves and pick out not just your favorite books, but the books that in your opinion have the strongest voices.  Read and re-read to discover what it is that speaks to you, then do your best to use some of those same techniques in your own attempt to find voice.

11.  Don't try too hard.  Nothing is worse than reading an author who tries so hard to comply with "how everyone else writes" that the voice is not only false, it's irritating.  Chick-lit, wise-cracking snappy twenty-somethings who enthuse with irony over every broken fingernail; pages and pages of dialogue dripping with "Y'alls" and "Dah-lins" when the author has been no further south than Maine; cerebral attempts to fake street smarts and slang...  It's way easier to just be yourself.

12.  Don't worry about it.  Write what you love and you'll be writing in your own voice.  Try to keep in mind that writing is an act of creativity--follow your intuition, follow your gut, follow your heart.  Do those three things and you'll be using your real voice without a second thought.

Tip of the Day:  Read aloud from a wide selection of titles.  Listen to the way the words and sentences sound.  What do you admire when you hear the phrases?  What do you dislike?  How can you change your own writing so that it sounds more pleasing or realistic to your ear?


LadyD Piano said...

Great advice and good tips. Thanks!

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

Wonderful practical suggestions on finding voice -- not to mention overcoming writer's block. I really like the idea about giving your worst thoughts to your characters. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Thanks for these tips. I think I need to try writing poetry...