Everyone tells you that to be a great writer, you have to find your voice.
It’s this big rite of passage thing, and everyone has a bunch of advice about how to do it (most of which is totally contradictory), but it’s just understood that when you’ve found your voice, you will sound awesome and unique and you’ll be a REAL writer, Pinocchio!
So people agonize over this, and stress out, and read all kinds of advice about doing it, most of which falls somewhere on the spectrum of “Do a bunch of things to craft your voice like the artisan that you are!” and “Write as you speak!”
So they do all the personality tests, play the obnoxious little games that other people say will somehow help them figure out what the hell they’re doing, copy writing from other writers, and freewrite until they get sick of the whole thing, and then decide that the write-as-you-talkers knew what they were saying after all (because doing all those exercises is boring!), and they decide that from now on, they’ll channel their inner Whitman and write as they talk so that their real voice can come out.
Except that doesn’t work either, and it never will — the Hemingway principle is absolutely right.
Cue angst … because if your voice is supposed to come out when you write as you talk, and what comes out when you write as you talk is shit…then is your voice shit?
Nope. Turns out that both ends of this spectrum are total bullshit — you don’t need to find your voice at all. Instead, you need to find your radio voice.
You know, that one that’s just a little more polished than you are naturally, that’s just a little smoother, just a little classier than you come across naturally. I call this your radio voice because this is exactly what people who talk on the radio do — no one actually sounds that smooth or that funny or that NPR-ish in real life, not even NPR people.
When people talk as they normally do, it’s ridiculous — we talk in circles, mix up words, "um" and "er" like crazy, and generally sound like idiots. Your radio voice is a particular version of your voice that you learn to adopt when you talk on the radio because everyone’s normal voice sounds silly and flakey in that context.
This absolutely doesn’t mean that you should try to develop some generic, boring, business-speak bullshit voice, so don’t even start going there, because there’s too much of that going around on the Internet already. Think about Garrison Keillor. Dude’s got this really distinctive radio voice that’s all him, but I guarantee that’s not the same exact way that he talks in real life.
This is what you want to aim for in your writing — you don’t want to be the super awkward, totally unedited person, but you also don’t want to be so stilted that you sound like the weather service warnings. So how in the hell do you do this?
Well, here’s where things get a little awkward — probably for the first time in the history of the Internet, there aren’t going to be 10 weird but easy tricks discovered by a stay at home mom/guru that you can use to hack your voice!
It’s gonna take reflection. It’s gonna take time. It’s gonna take more than what one article can tell you. Like Ira Glass says, you’re going to hit The Gap. And it will be painful and not nearly as colorful T-shirts and jeans as it sounds.
And while there are resources that can help you through it (hint hint, nudge nudge), but you can also get there on your own — at the risk of sounding super wonky and woo woo, it is a very personal thing. Ultimately though, it comes down to first figuring out who you really are, what you think about and consume all day, and what you’re trying to say. See why I can’t give you a magic 10 step system now?
That being said, here are four things you can do that will definitely help the process.
1. Cut your clutter — that will be hiding your voice like crazy. If you write casually, it’s going to look like “basically” and “sort of.” If you’re writing formally, then it’s going to be jargon.
2. Don’t use words that you can’t imagine yourself saying out loud. How do you figure out what these are? Surprisingly enough, by actually reading what you write out loud. It’s going to sound initially awkward, and that’s OK, but if you’re still stumbling over the words after a few times, it’s probably not your real voice. And as you read, you’ll probably find that you start automatically substituting some words for what you’ve written — pay attention, it’s your voice trying to come out.
If this is really giving you a hard time, then find a friend who has a good ear and read it to them — they’ll tell you when you stop sounding like you.
3. Steal like an artist.You have literally the entire world at your fingertips with the Internet, including people giving you scripts that you can copy and modify and do whatever the hell you want with them. So use them!
4. And finally, don’t take it all so damn seriously! It’s not the quest for the holy grail — it’s just a process, and you’ll get there eventually. If it really spooks you, then hire someone to help you with it, or find a friend and go through it together.
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