Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Loud and Clear: Part 5: Tips and Exercises for Finding Your Writing Voice

Over the course of the past four posts in this series on voice, I’ve given you a lot of information about the elements of voice. But you may still be wondering how you go about finding your voice. (Find the previous posts as follows: part 1 on defining voice; part 2 on POV; part 3 on tense, grammar and punctuation, and sentence structure; part 4 on word choice.)
This post offers some tips and exercises you can use to discover your own voice.
Before I begin, I’d like you to keep in mind that a writer’s voice can and will vary—particularly when crossing genres of fiction (and nonfiction). You probably wouldn’t write a romance novel the same way that you write a crime story.
There is likely to be an overall consistency in the writing and voice across your body of work: your voice will (and should) be different in everything that you do, but there’s also going to be some similarities because you are who you are.
And that’s a great thing. Readers come to your work because they like what you do and have some idea of what to expect. This gets into branding, which is a whole ‘nother topic!
A writer like Stephen King or John Green is going to mean something to the reader. Again, Rainbow Rowell is a good example because she writes both adult and young adult fiction. While the stories and characters are different, I know there will be an element of humor in her work and I love that.
This is the same with my own writing: I also try to write with humor. I know myself, and I know I’m not going to be able, at least in this stage of my career, to write a realistic portrayal of the bleakest, most dire days on earth. Someone will crack a joke. Super dark is not my style, and so I’ll write projects and characters that lend themselves to my style—to my voice.
And I don’t have to apologize for that. If I don’t write what I love to write and what comes naturally to me, I’m ignoring my voice and it will never be my best work.
Okay, so if it’s your distinct voice that keeps your readers coming back for everything you write, how do you develop that voice? How do you find your authentic voice?
Here are some tips for doing just that:
1. Try reading a lot of works by one author and looking for patterns. What’s similar? What’s different in terms of style and voice across all of the author’s novels?
2. Figure out what you love: The lovely Lee Kelly, whose amazing debut City of Savages released yesterday, told me this and I thought it was great. It’s a way to unabashedly discover your voice and not feel like you need to be like someone else—because you shouldn’t, remember, this is all about being unique and true to yourself.
Lee made a list of the books, TV shows, and movies she loved. Pure love. No judgment. Though she reads and watches across genres, when she studied the lists for common elements, she discovered there were many. She was most drawn to sci fi and fantasy, things with grander moral themes, and dark and edgy.
Those were the building blocks for what she wanted to write and the style in which she wanted to write them.
3. Describe yourself in three adjectives. This is another one that gets at who you are and what you like. For example: funny, loud, and outgoing. Then ask (and answer) the question: “Is this how I talk?” Then, ask other people how you talk. You can discover a lot about who you are by what other people see. It might surprise you.
4. Define your narrator. This plays into the idea of knowing your character. If you don’t know who your character is, you can’t discover his or her voice.
One way to get to know your character is to create a character profile, and there’s a lot of advice online for how to do this. Or start out more simply: come up with characteristics or traits for your narrator and create statements as if that character was saying them. “I’m a klutz.” “I have self-esteem issues.” “I’m terrified of public speaking.”
What do these traits tell you about that character? You can find out a lot about your character’s voice, and your own writing voice, through this exercise.
5. Imagine your ideal reader. Describe him or her in detail. Then, write to her, and only her. Example: My ideal reader is smart. She has a sense of humor and loves pop culture.
6. Free-write. Just go nuts. Write in a way that’s most comfortable to you, without editing. Then go back and read it, asking yourself, “Are my stories like this? Do I want them to be?” Honestly ask yourself, “Is this something I would read?” If not, you should probably think about changing your voice. Also ask yourself: “Do I enjoy what I’m writing as I’m writing it?” If it feels like work, you may not be writing like yourself.
To conclude, we talked about a writing voice being important for finding and hooking readers and editors. But there’s another reason. If you aren’t writing with your voice, if it doesn’t come naturally for you, you will burn out. It’s exhausting to try to write like someone else.

You need to feel free to be yourself. But that doesn’t mean you are off the hook for honing your voice.

All writing is craft, and voice is no different. The starting point is being true to yourself, but all the rest presented in this series can and should be used to make your voice as strong as it can be.

It may be the single greatest struggle for most writers. It won’t happen overnight, but if you pay attention to it and work on it, you will find your writer’s voice.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, April 21, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.


  1. Great advice, Lori! I've never thought to imagine my ideal reader, describe him/her, and then write to him/her.

  2. Thanks Genetta. So glad you found it useful!