Voice is one of the most important elements in successful writing … your readers can actually “hear” your unique signature voice through your words—whether they are on paper or on a screen.
If readers do not pick up our unique writing voice through our words, they will tune us out and we’ll lose them.
We may have a meaningful story to relay. We may have leading-edge content which will really help people. But if we cannot capture and sustain the reader’s attention, they will not benefit from the story or the content.
If readers lock in to your signature writing voice, it’s a different story. It has to do with your writing style.
But deeper yet, it is the uniqueness of your person, your individuality, flowing through the print. It’s a bit abstract, but once we understand some of the keys in discovering and using our unique writing voice, we will see the fruit. Your choice of words—the way you use them, even the more creative (and sometimes non-standard) use of punctuation—help to release your voice.
Here are some concepts from Joy Tanksley, a middle school English teacher. I’m blending in some of my own thoughts with her’s:
Write about what you know with passion
Let it flow from your heart through your mind to the page or screen. If you write just from the top of your mind, it will show. If you are just regurgitating information without passion, it will be sensed. It will not be in your voice. It has to be close to your heart. You have to care about it. Don’t just write what you think would be popular or what is currently being talked about, unless it is a heart issue with you.
This is about authenticity. Don’t try to sound like someone else. Your readers will sense an intangible something that is missing. They may not necessarily be able to define or articulate it, but they will pick it up. When that happens, we lose them. Is not much (or even all!) of life like this? Relationships. Business. Leadership …
Immerse yourself in the flow
This is a great exercise that Joy Tanksley has her students do every day. It’s a three-minute writing warm-up. Pick a thought or a writing prompt. Set a timer for three minutes. Then let it flow—start writing immediately. Don’t let the pencil or pen come off the paper. Don’t let your fingers come off the keyboard. Don’t edit and don’t censor yourself. There is one goal: fluency. Release as much writing as you can in three minutes. The focus at this point is quantity, not quality. What comes out should be natural and authentic. Your words will have the ring of your unique voice.
This kind of daily exercise will tune your voice and train your inner person to find the flow as you write. When you’re actually writing something that you want others to see, you can use a similar approach. You can come back later and take things out, add things, edit—but you will discover that your initial draft will have a signature voice to it: your unique writing voice.
Forget about ‘standard English’—at least at first
I enjoy grammar. Once in a while, a good Friday evening for me is coming home from Borders with a book like The Glamour of Grammar—A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark! Truly, a refreshing grammar book! Weird, huh?
But during the first draft, when you are seeking that “sweet spot,” getting in touch with your passionate heart and releasing the flow, your voice will be stifled if you pay too much attention to proper English grammar. The surest way to kill passion and flow is to edit as you write your first draft. Simply write. Try to write somewhat faster. Later you can come back and edit and polish your writing. Even here, though, we have to be careful that we do not squelch our writing voice with a preoccupation with conventional grammar.
Clark, a distinguished writing teacher, makes a case for this in The Glamour of Grammar. Sometimes you have to ignore the grammar check. Use fragment sentences. Use serial commas. There are creative and diverse ways to use punctuation that allow your voice to ring through and yet remain within a basic framework of solid English writing. Become a student of the craft of writing. Experiment. When you are rereading and rewriting your work, make decisions on what best communicates your story or content.
Are you supposed to write? Then you have a unique story to tell. There is unique content or information that someone is waiting on. But, you also have a unique writing voice to tell that story, to convey that content. Don’t settle for a voice beneath you … insist on your signature writing voice.
Stephen Covey helps us to think about ‘voice’ in the broader sense of our potential. In ‘The 8th Habit,’ he writes about the 4 human capacities that empower us to make a difference. Short post on this here.
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