“Discover Your Unique Writing Voice”
by Desiree Villena
“I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.”
– Sylvia Plath
Everyone’s voice is distinct, in both positive and negative ways. Originality of thought, poetic expression, sensitivity, and subtlety of insight are all expressed through your writing voice — but so are things like wordy and clunky sentences, poorly organized thoughts, or an over-reliance on cliché expressions.
In other words, your writing voice can be helping you or it could be hurting you.
Learning to spot the negatives in your own voice means allowing the positives of the voice to claim their rightful place at the forefront of your reader’s attention. It’s important you lean into that self-awareness so you can emerge a better writer.
Let’s start at the beginning…
What is writing voice?
Your writing voice is what you sound like when you write, which is often different from the way you speak. It can take a while for this voice to crystallize when you begin to write seriously, as you will have to learn how to stay true to your speaking voice while communicating clearly with the reader without helpful physical cues like hand movements, facial expressions, and volume.
That’s why it’s so important for beginning writers to work on their craft relentlessly—so they can cut the ineffective parts from their speech and hone in more accurately (and maybe more stylishly) on what they have to say.
One really cool way to understand writing voice is through a concept that linguists call “idiolects.” A person’s idiolect is their particular, personal language pattern. It’s a linguistic DNA of sorts, like a fingerprint, and unique to each person. Your idiolect is shaped by many factors: your personality, your age, your job, where you’re from, whether you’re a native speaker of a given language, and so on.
Why does writing voice (and idiolect) matter?
So why should you care about idiolects? Because by becoming aware of your own linguistic patterns, you’ll have a head start when it comes to achieving that crucial aspect of self-editing: creating distance between yourself and your writing. Let me give you an example.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer. So let’s chat in language you understand. An author well-versed in the process of Amazon self-publishing will be familiar with Amazon-publishing-specific vocabulary. They’ll be regularly talking meta descriptions, Amazon categories, Kindle Direct Publishing, EPUB and MOBI files. But if a character in their novel were to discuss the “meta descriptions” of products on a grocery store website (without being an e-commerce expert themselves), that would grate on the reader’s ear and stand out as a totally bizarre choice of vocabulary. That’s an example of your writing voice getting in your way.
In conversation, this obvious filtering of jargon happens instinctively, because we use language to communicate efficiently and not to intentionally create confusion (unless you’re a magician, and in that case, continue on!). But just as our minds routinely turn to occupational jargon at work, they will also reach for some instinctive “staple” verbs, phrases, adverbs, even sentence structures, when we’re writing prose.
How to sound like “you” while getting out your best writing
Idiolects are helpful to your editing process, but they’re a concept you should ignore while you’re still writing. In the drafting stage, you need to shut your ears to all doubts and hesitations, and simply plow ahead — in bad prose if necessary (though it won’t be all bad, I promise).
The self-editing stage is when the real magic happens. It’s when knowing your voice and idiolect becomes most helpful to you, and you can craft sentences that both feel like you and get out of the story’s way. You can complete this stage before or after having a professional editor take a look at it. If you get it before, you can receive a developmental edit to make your book’s story, content, and structure as strong as it can be.
To properly shape your voice, you first need to pay close attention to your writerly instincts. This is akin to spending some time staring at yourself moving in the mirror, but for your writing. It gets a little uncomfortable and it will make you self-aware, but it’s a process worth sticking to. Focus on recurring issues. Maybe you always use one particular adverb without realizing it; perhaps you rely too much on one cliché phrase. Do you always end your paragraphs with short sentences or aphoristic statements? You will quickly realize that certain stylistic elements appear again and again, without you intending to repeat them.
Let me be clear — there’s nothing inherently wrong with your idiolect, and these patterns aren’t flaws. These are just the linguistic neural pathways that are strongest in your mind. But by achieving a metatextual awareness of your own idiolect’s recurring characteristics, you can begin to spot issues on the self-editing level with greater ease.
If you listen to yourself speak and watch yourself write, you’ll notice repetitive patterns. And once you’ve spotted something, you can make an informed choice about whether or not it’s a language choice that’s helpful to the piece you’re writing.
Ultimately, it’s this conscious decision-making that matters most. When you can say that every word and phrase is intentional, you’ll know you’re really letting your voice shine, with all excesses trimmed away.
About the Author
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with resources on self-publishing and professionals to help polish their books. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.
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