How Do Writers Find Their Voice?
The Blunt Instrument on cultivating your personal style as a writer
Dear Blunt Instrument,
What is your best advice for new writers looking to find “their voice”? I was reading Bird by Bird and while it’s an amazing book full of knowledge and great tips — I am still having a tough time finding it. I want to find a happy medium between who I am as a person and my writing voice/style.
First, let’s take a minute to establish what I think you mean by your “voice,” which is not exactly equivalent to your writing. Your voice is the style that people would recognize you by — your tone, your syntax, your quirks of vocabulary, your structure and organization, your point of view, where you focus and where you don’t — and, one hopes, the style you want to be recognized by. In other words, your voice as a writer is something you cultivate and protect.
As a new writer, you may be at a stage where you’re producing writing, but you don’t yet feel that your writing is distinctive or recognizable, or, even if it is, you don’t yet feel prideful ownership of, or that you have meaningful control over, whatever your stylistic quirks are. So how do you get to that place where you understand and command your own style?
The easiest answer is that you get there simply by writing
The easiest answer is that you get there simply by writing, and trusting that your voice will emerge through greater experience with the medium, which will lead to greater control. Tennis players (probably?) don’t worry too much about how to “find their serve” or “find their forehand” — even though professional tennis players do have distinctive strokes and playing styles — they just play a whole lot of tennis, almost every day, to get better at the game, and those styles naturally come about. They even do the equivalent of reading when they’re not writing, by watching lots of tennis. Writing is the same! The more you write (and read), the better you’ll get at writing (and reading), and the more you’ll find that you’re developing a style. Even if you don’t recognize it, your readers will.
So yeah, you should write more. That said, I can offer a few specific tips that are more directive.
You mentioned that you want to find a medium between who you are “as a person” and your writing voice. My advice: Don’t strive to make your writing voice much different or more special than the way you speak. You’ve been talking for longer than you’ve been writing, and you probably already have an innate “voice.” So start by writing (roughly) the way you talk or, if you prefer, the way you think, when you think in language — but with better grammar, because writing can be edited, and with more structure, because writing can be planned. I always think you can tell when someone’s prose is labored over because they want you to think they’re a stylist — there’s a contrived extra-ness that usually feels like poorly imitated maneuvers you’ve seen used by more famous writers. Don’t try to add style like a top coat! A great bit of writing should come to you like a thought — that’s not to say it’s going to be easy, but that you may need to spend more time thinking to find the thoughts that will shape your voice.
They say “kill your darlings,” but I think darlings are your voice — your favorite parts, the parts you’d admire even if you didn’t write them. Why destroy what you love?
In service of that, be on the watch for moments where you recognize something great in your own writing — a moment where you stop and think, “yes, that’s a great sentence, that’s exactly what I wanted to say, and if an editor wanted to change it, I’d argue with them.” They say “kill your darlings,” but I think darlings are your voice — your favorite parts, the parts you’d admire even if you didn’t write them. Why destroy what you love? If you feel that strongly about something you’ve written, pay attention! That’s a sign that you’re establishing a voice. If people are telling you your darling isn’t working, it may just be that you haven’t found the right setting for your darling, a context that’s worthy of its greatness.
Getting good at recognizing your own moments of greatness will change your life as a writer — you’ll be exponentially better as a self-editor. You’ll be able to tell the difference between a shitty first draft and something you can’t wait to show people. That doesn’t mean your writing won’t need to be edited, but you’ll get better at “editing up” — understanding when to push back on an unnecessary or detrimental edit. You may also run into situations where you just can’t work with an editor, because their edits run too counter to the piece you want to write. Once you know your voice, and you know an editor hates it, you can just decline to work with them, rather than trying to make them happy if it means ruining the piece by your own lights.
If you’re looking for more direction on figuring out your own standards for greatness, check out my answer to another writer’s question: How do you know if your writing is any good?
Best of luck,
The Blunt Instrument