How to Find Your Voice in Writing
In the past year, I’ve learned a lot of things for the first time. And, honestly, I sucked at a lot of them. Changing diapers well came with time, but calming a screeching newborn? Who even knows how to do that! Again and again my abilities and hard work were tested. I tried not to tumble into the pitfall of taking control of all new parenting at my house because “I know best.” The times when I did that, it was just to keep away the shrieking uncertainty of any of my ideas and solutions. Day by day, week by week, month by month, I’ve built up a little confidence about this new parenting skill I’ve been learning and practicing.
But you know when I DO feel confident? Writing! I’ve been writing short stories and poems since I was 8 or 9 years old, started a magazine at 12 (it was a super stylish fashion magazine that I illustrated and edited, of course), published three of my own ‘zines throughout the 90s, and then earned a degree in English with a concentration Creative Writing. I’m not going to bore you with my adult resume, but trust me, I’m no newbie at writing.
And because I had a pretty un-confident parenting day yesterday, I thought I would build up some of my confidence and offer some advice on writing to those of you who might want to pick up a keyboard and write something for yourself. I’m happy to take parenting criticism and maybe we can share our talents and make something good out of our corner of the internet!
Even though my education and pedigree in writing is pretty solid, I think there’s a few things even the most unsteady and inexperienced writer can do to find their own voice while blogging or writing anything from the heart. If you’ve been clicking away for years, maybe I have a tip or two for you as well. I think it’s so important to empower other people to share their own stories, to be brave, to speak up, because when we find our voice in writing it helps us find the voice deep in our heart and listen to it more often.
+ all art begins with seeing
My high school had a pretty rigorous art program, and I was blessed enough to be a part of it and “major” in studio art while I attended. Although she was tough as nails, my teacher Sr. Lucia told us that “all art begins by seeing.” In between endlessly drawing ellipses and straight lines until I though I was going to pass out, I learned to really see things, pay attention, take them in while I was working. We might spend twenty minutes in that class just looking at and studying our still life before we even picked up a charcoal. This lesson is true for any creative process I think. Whatever your subject matter: food, fitness, politics, religion, fashion… it matters a great deal that you spend the time to look and listen before you even start to write about it. Do your homework! When I write a post, it’s probably already been mulling around in my head for weeks or even months before anything really gets written. I don’t spend a lot of time writing or editing because that’s gotten faster with time. Observing never speeds up for me. In fact, the longer I’ve been writing, the more time I spend watching, listening, taking it all in, studying. And if you can learn to really see, sometimes you get lucky enough to make a little art!
+ listen to strong voices
I spent just absurd amounts of time reading. I don’t plow through books like most people, though. Most of my reading is in snippets here and there between naps. It’s usually articles, advice, news stories, and tidbits. Lots and lots of articles. One thing I love most are memoirs and interviews if I’m going to spend my time on anything for more than a moment. I really enjoy hearing other people’s voices through their writing. And I love hearing what really strong voices in entertainment, personal development, politics, faith, fashion, and beauty have to say. Their voices are so clear! I just read an interview with RuPaul. Of course, every single answer sounds just like RuPaul. If you read lyrics to any new Taylor Swift song, you’d think to yourself, “yeah, this is exactly what I thought Taylor Swift would sound like!” If you read scripture, it always sounds like scripture. Surround yourself with writers who have unmistakeable voices. The classics are an excellent place to start. Just a chapter or two of Austen and a chapter or two of Faulkner and you’ll see what I’m getting at here. Every writer starts with a little bit of imitation, but when you start imitating other voices it becomes a lot easier to see where they leave off and you begin. Try it! Write a page or two in the style of Poe and then write the same thing in your own, natural voice. You’ll start to hear the differences right away, and it will really help clarify your voice.
+ get clear with your message
While I was teaching, I spent a lot of time presenting talks and lectures and did some inspirational-type talks while doing ministry and religious education. I have terrible stage fright and REALLY have to work at presenting well. One thing that helped was asking myself: “ok self, if the building came crashing down and the kids were running out the door, what’s the one thing you would want them to take away from this lesson?” If I couldn’t answer that in one or two bullet points, I sent myself back to the drawing board to work though it again. It’s pretty easy to get lost in the weeds when you’re passionate about a subject. For each post, I try to think of one or two real takeaways and stay clear on those. If you want to get formal about it and don’t have a lot of practice writing, start researching thesis statements and two point sentence outlines. That will totally transform your writing! It’s such a handy tool to clarify exactly what you want to say and how you will say it. After years and years, I can be a little lazier about structure (and it’s just a blog after all), but if it’s every truly important, I take the time to break down my message into clear, digestible bits.
+ always remember your audience
You know who I’m writing to most of the time? Me! And my handful of really close friends who are (maybe?) reading this right now! I keep my circle small when I think about my audience. I think that’s a good thing! So often, I see writers and creators trying to be everything to everyone. Most of the time, it comes off artificial and fake. If I see a content creator on youtube and there is even a hint of fake-ness, I know immediately that they are trying really hard to appeal to too many people. No successful writer, company, brand, or director appeals to everyone all the time. And that’s ok! If you start to narrow down your audience to a handful of people you know well, you can direct content to them and it’s amazing… there are others! One thing I love about the internet is that even the strangest, most unusual person can find their tribe. It helps a lot of people feel less alone. So no matter what your voice, how you use it, or what you say, your audience will find you. I try to maintain authenticity to people I can picture really clearly in my mind while I’m writing and try to ignore everything else. Somebody’s bound to listen!
+ seek out editors you trust
My husband is really successful in his professional field. Every time he’s applying for a job or program he makes sure to send it my way to have a good, thorough look at his application, resume, and cover letter. Part of that is him being sweet and including me in things, but a far larger part is that he trusts me as an editor. He knows I want the best for him and want to show him in his best light. He appreciates my expertise and my voice, even if he doesn’t agree with all my edits. That’s so important, writers! Find people who believe in you but who aren’t sycophantic yes-men saying everything is wonderful. Fans are great, but they will always be just fans. If you want to truly hone your craft, hand around writing samples to people you really trust in life and in expertise. It’s going to take swallowing a bunch of pride and really putting your heart out there, but there is no replacement for a good editor.
+ trust yourself
Set aside time to hear yourself think and speak and opine and feel. Take out a journal and scribble thoughts only you will hear. It doesn’t matter if it “sucks” or is “good.” This isn’t about being good. This is about listening and trusting the voice that comes out of you. Some people like morning pages where they just toss everything in their mind on paper first thing. I use Bible journaling and just bare my soul there with zero filter. In my writing journey, the more I trust God, the more I start to trust myself. I think there’s a lot of different ways to bare your soul and begin hearing your voice. Find whatever works for you, and go there frequently and honestly. Every single thing we do otherwise is just an airbrushed version of the truth. Even though some writers are higher on the authenticity spectrum then others, it’s just a shadow of who they are laid bare and honest. If we don’t know what our own voices sound like, how can we give a voice to all the things that are closest to our hearts? Listen well to yourself and trust yourself a little.
+ the journey is never over
Every time I think I’ve written my best stuff or poured my heart out the most, another day passes and I find fresh ways to present my thoughts and fresh things to share. There’s never a time when I won’t be writing. I’m currently reading Misty Copeland’s memoir, Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina. She’s a principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theater (a favorite). She often hears the question, “you still go to ballet classes every day??” And like any professional ballerina, her answer is “of course!” Until she retires, she will be taking daily ballet classes to make each step a little better, a little stronger, a little more precise, a little more elegant. Thankfully, my craft is just warming up as I’m reaching midlife instead of winding down like a professional dancer. That doesn’t mean I can get lazy with my sentences and style! Good work requires practice. That’s one of the reasons I blog. This is practice for me! It’s fun, interesting, totally self-directed, and just gets me in the habit of writing frequently about the things that I love. I want to be a better, more authentic, writer, so I’m going to keep on seeing, listening, clarifying, speaking to my audience, editing, and trusting myself over and over again for years to come.
I hope some of this was helpful in your own writing journey! If you happen to blog, these are just some ideas to get you started. If you are in school or own a business or are even an aspiring novelist, I think a lot of these tips will help you find your writing voice as well. This is just the beginning of course! I look forward to seeing what you have to say soon.
Now I have to go back to practicing at this mom thing so I can get just a little better at keeping my baby away from outlets and electrical cords…