In university, we all had unique student numbers which went on the cover sheets of all our papers. The idea was that it would maintain anonymity and help the lecturers to mark our work impartially. Our markers were fair (despite anything my fellow students would have had me believe) but we were not anonymous — at least, I know that I wasn’t.
I know this because a couple of my lecturers made cheeky quips about turns of phrases I had used. One even rebuked me for forgetting to use a spell-checker on a particularly hurried submission, resulting in a few cases of double-capitalisation (eg. THe or ANd) at the beginnings of my sentences. How did they know? They hadn’t memorised the student number, they recognised the voice. My words were never particularly loud, they were simply distinct.
Why the story of my university days? Well, because it illustrates a point: we all have a voice of our own. This should be particularly true of writers. There is an art to storytelling and part of the art is the voice that tells it.
Mimickry is particularly noticeable among young writers, seeking to emulate their favourite authors. The problem is that you are not C. S. Lewis or L. M. Montgomery, you are yourself and so you should use your own voice. Here are eight tips how to find that voice.
One of the best ways to learn how to write is by reading. But read widely and pay attention to what the authors say (and don’t say) and how they say (or don’t say) those things. The chances are that you find yourself drawn to certain books because they think the same way and see the world the same way as you. For several very different narrative voices, compare Tolkien’s The Hobbit; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey; and a personal favourite, The Twits by Roald Dahl.
Another great way to learn to write is by actually writing. The more you write, the more you will find that your voice develops without much thought. I hadn’t realised that I had my own voice until I’d been blogging for three or four years and noticed that I had stopped sounding like poor imitations of the writers I liked and had become something else. Their influences are still there but the voice is mine. Don’t think about it, just write and in time you’ll begin to see it.
That said, it’s good to experiment. If there are things that you see in other writing that you like then adopt it and try it out. If they work for you, they’ll become natural and if they don’t they’ll disappear when you aren’t paying attention. There are many beautiful techniques and turns of phrases in books that you will never need. Experiment with them and most appreciate them but don’t feel the need to keep (or even try) everything you admire.
What many people don’t realise is that you don’t write the same way that you speak. They are two wholly different skills. There are many fine writers who stutter and stumble the moment they open their mouths, and many world-class orators that cannot organise their thoughts on paper. This is where feedback comes in handy.
Listen to those who are giving you feedback and if they are consistently saying that something is odd or off-putting or doesn’t make sense, then that’s an area of weakness that you will want to work on to develop a strong voice.
Why do you write? What is it that you want to say? What motivates you to say it? These are all good questions to ask yourself because readers can tell when a writer is not invested in their words. Knowing what you want to say and why it matters will help you to develop clarity and boldness in your writing.
Though it is important to read plenty and to experiment with different styles, be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to sound exactly like your favourite writer. It’s the reading equivalent of when someone tries to do a Yorkshire accent and comes out sounding like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Be yourself or you will only annoy your readers and stress yourself out because you can’t keep up the style with any great consistency.
There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by others and looking up to others but you are yourself. You’ll grow best by growing into your own voice and not worrying about trying to maintain someone else’s.
With all this in mind, the most important advice that anyone can give about finding your writer’s voice is chill. Seriously, don’t worry about it. Don’t even think about it too much. You shouldn’t be focusing on it much more than thinking ‘I like that, I may try it’ in passing as you read.
Although it’s said to be important to develop your own voice, worrying about developing it and trying too hard to be unique will actually hinder the process. It’s one of those things that happens naturally as you grow as a writer. There are things you can do to help, like reading well and being aware of your weaknesses but just as most people don’t consider their accent, vocabulary, or sentence structure as they talk, so you shouldn’t worry about it when you write (unless your grammar is appalling and your sentences incomprehensible).
Get reading, get writing, listen to feedback, and relax. You’ll grow into your voice without even realising it. I’ve been writing as long as I can remember and I’m still growing into mine. We’re getting there though and you will too.
- Have you ever fallen into the trap of mimicking? Who were you trying to be like?
- If you could describe your writing style in three words, what would they be?