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Finding Your Voice

Posted by on March 9, 2011

Voice.

It’s the single most important aspect of blogging. Remember, the web log started as a personal, online journal, and that basic origin is still the central point of most blogs. Without a strong authentic voice, your blog loses credibility and personal appeal. The best blogs are those that speak to us, that connect us directly to the blogger.

It’s why I followed Seattle Seahawks sports blogger John Morgan. His breakdown of game film was always insightful, but sometimes got lost in the minutiae, and while his opinions were strongly supported, I didn’t always agree with him. But I came back week after week because I knew that he loved the Seahawks as much as I did, that he was first and foremost a fan, and that he was the kind of guy I could have a beer with and talk football for hours. I’d never met him, never heard him speak, never even knew what he looked like. It was his voice that I connected to.

T.S. Eliot, in his 1943 essay, “The Three Voices of Poetry,” asserts that:

[I]n writing [nondramatic] verse, I think that one is writing, so to speak, in terms of one’s own voice: the way it sounds when you read it to yourself is the test. For it is yourself speaking. The question of communication, of what the reader will get from it, is not paramount… (100).

Okay. So “voice” is the ability to capture “yourself speaking” in your writing. This doesn’t mean the way you actually speak in public on a regular basis. Can you imagine how this literally would a look?

“Yeah, so the whole problem with being anonymous is, I mean really what it comes down to, it’s like you can say and do anything online without consequences. And maybe that’s a good, um, a good, um, um, thing, but—it’s like no consequences, man. You say whatever shit you want to say, um, and, you know, no one can say, like, ‘You’re an effin liar, man,”—I mean, they can, but it doesn’t matter, you know? ‘Cause they don’t know who you are.”

No one wants to read that.

Voice, then, isn’t a direct representation of our speaking voice, but more of our thinking voice. It is our personality, that unique style and perspective captured through word choice and sentence construction. Peter Elbow, an leader in expressivist composition theory, called voice “what most people have in their speech but lack in their writing—namely, a sound or texture—the sound of ‘them’” (288). It is the authentic you coming through in the words you write.

Many professional writers have said that voice is not something you can teach or even describe. In some ways, they may be right. There isn’t a formula to tell you what words to choose, what order to put them in, how to construct sentences and paragraphs specifically for your voice.

But there are exercises and techniques that allow you to tap into that realm of authenticity, where the words flow without censor from mind through fingers to breath upon the page.

Write What You Know

It’s one of the oldest clichés in writing, but it has a point. When we write about topics that we care about, our natural excitement and passion comes forth.

Does this mean you can only write about direct experiences? Of course not. It’s more about writing from a place of knowledge and passion. I have obviously never lived in a wattle hut along the Rhine River in the First Century B.C., but I’ve researched what it might have been like, I’m passionate about it, and I can close my eyes and imagine myself there.

As Kurt Vonnegut says in his essay, “How to Write With Style”:

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

But what if you must write about a topic or subject that you aren’t interested in? Find a way to make it personal. What is your perspective or opinion on the subject? Why do you hold this opinion? What factors in your life have influenced your perspective? Use this to find an angle that makes the subject personally relatable to you.

Write Without Audience First

Peter Elbow proposes that in order to discover your authentic voice, you must first put aside all thoughts of audience.

People often lack any voice at all in their writing, even fake voice, because they stop so often in the act of writing a sentence and worry and change their minds about which words to use.

We worry about how our words will be perceived, and so we censor ourselves in the very act of writing.

Does this mean we shouldn’t consider audience? That everything I’ve been teaching about the importance of audience has been B.S.? Of course not. Merely that we must allow ourselves to create a first draft, getting all of our thoughts out of our heads, and in the process allow our authentic selves to come out. We later revise for audience.

So this means that you must develop a process for writing. You must give yourself time to generate ideas, more time to write an uncensored draft, and even more time to revise that draft to meet your rhetorical situation.

Here’s how you can develop voice through uncensored drafting, or as Elbow calls it, freewriting:

  1. Write without stopping for set amounts of time. Do not censor ideas, do not worry about punctuation or grammar or word choice. Just let the words flow. Practice this often, not just before drafting a blog post; it will help you to overcome the urge to self-censor and make more natural the process of getting voice into your words.
  2. Read out loud. By reading your writing aloud, even to just yourself, you can actually here the rhythm, feel the points of awkwardness, and even better, the places of authenticity. You become familiar with what works and what doesn’t, because you are training your “inner ear.”

Another composition theorist, Ken Macrorie, in his book Telling Writing (1985), says about a particular student paper that has voice:

In that paper, a truthtelling voice speaks, and its rhythms rush and build like the human mind travelling at high speed. Rhythm, rhythm, the best writing depends so much upon it. But as in dancing, you can’t get rhythm by giving yourself directions. You must feel the music and let your body take its instructions (160).

This is what you are striving to discover: the natural rhythm of your “truthtelling voice”.

Giving yourself time to freewrite, read aloud, and practice will not only make your blog posts more authentic, but will help you avoid the “academese” so many students affect: attempts to sound authentic through passive voice, nominalizations, and awkward synonyms.

Write Often

The more you write, the easier it becomes to tap into that inner voice.

  1. Practice revising for voice. Elbow mentions an exercise where you write short narratives with no punctuation at all, getting your “words so well ordered that punctuation is never missed.”
  2. Write for yourself. Keep a journal, or freewrite and then throw the composition away. Don’t get caught up in the finished product, but instead focus on the act of writing, paying careful attention to the moments when it feels natural, and reflect upon what worked in those moments.

If you truly want to connect with your reader, you will make time to practice these simple exercises to develop a strong voice. In doing so, you will also find that writing becomes more enjoyable, and that more people will want to hear what you have to say.

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