Six Secrets to Developing Your Unique Writing Voice
Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.
—Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
When I’d first started coming to the church, I couldn’t even stand up for half the songs because I’d be so sick from cocaine and alcohol that my head would be spinning, but these people were so confused that they’d thought I was a child of God.
—Ann Lamott, Operating Instructions
Pick up a book by Dickens, Hemingway, or Lamott and without glancing at the cover you know immediately who you are reading. Why? Because these authors have a unique writing voice. They have a style that’s all their own, a way of putting their thoughts on paper, a way of creating places and characters that are distinctive. Editors are hungry for authors who have learned how to do this.
The good news is you already have a unique voice. It just needs to be honed and developed. In my years of teaching creative writing at a local college and now editing for several publishing houses, I’ve discovered that some authors instinctively use their God-given ability. Others of us stumble around making many mistakes before we discover the voice within. If you are struggling in this area, then here are six tips to help you.
Don’t try to copy other famous authors.
Beverly Cleary made me laugh out loud, and I wanted to be funny like her. I spent the first five years of my writing career trying to write humorous children’s books and short stories. They were quickly rejected. It wasn’t until I realized I needed to write out of my heart that I found my voice. The first time I tried it was a short story about a girl who captures a pigeon and puts it in a cage. Instead of writing from my head, I went to a deep place within me and drew out strong emotions and placed them on paper for everyone to read. It was scary because it was so personal. It was worth the risk. “A Cage of Love” was the first short story I sold.
Throw away what you think an author should sound like.
Many of my students are humorous, charming people, but when they hand in their assignments they are serious and boring. They have traded in their personalities and become what I call writerly. I tell them to forget everything they’ve ever been taught and to let their words flow as they would speak them. When they do this, it transforms their manuscripts. And as they read their attempts in class, they can sense the positive response from the other students. This experience changes their writing style forever.
Hone your unique way of looking at the world.
When I look at a mountain prairie, golden in the summer sun, I can smell the ripening wheat and sense the anticipation of the farmers as they prepare for the harvest. You may look at the same prairie and see something quite different—breezes gently tossing the heads of grain may remind you of the ocean. This is good. We all must use what we have experienced and what we know to make the world come alive for our readers. I can do research and describe a battle scene, but I cannot bring to my writing Hemingway’s unique way of looking at war. On the other hand, he cannot bring the same feelings I have to the experience of showing a pig at the county fair.
Play with words.
The best writers I know are also poets. They use alliteration, similes, and metaphors. Not old tired ones, like cool as a cucumber or soft as baby’s breath, but fresh new ones, like smooth as a freshly shaved leg. They love to play with words. They use specific nouns and verbs and shy away from adverbs and adjectives. Instead of saying house, they use words like cottage, cabin, and cabana. Instead of bird, they develop a mood with swan, chickadee, or crow. They paint pictures with their words. They use the five senses, especially the sense of smell, which is famous for triggering emotions. They also use symbolism, like glass door knobs and yellow ears of corn and a stuffed lion named Bradley.
When I first began writing, it was hard to get the voices of my English teachers out of my head. I painstakingly wrote every word, making sure that each sentence was grammatically correct and properly punctuated before I went on to the next one. This made my writing feel stilted and jerky. I got rid of those voices when I learned to write fast. This was hard when I wrote with pen and paper or on my portable Royal. That’s why I like the computer. I can now get the words down on paper as fast they come out of my brain. When I do this, they are closer to being me. It’s not perfect, but that’s fine. I can go back and make it perfect later. That is one way to capture my voice and the voice of my characters.
Practice, practice, practice.
Finding your voice comes with practice. Write whenever you can—on the bus, while you wait in the dentist’s office, at a coffee shop, or on a park bench. Then one magical day it will come.
When you first hear your voice, you will know it. It will be like singing a perfect note. It will resonate in your ear and in your heart as being true. The rewards will be many—a sense of being truly yourself, a delighted audience, and just possibly more sales.