Who are you anyway? One of the biggest struggles for emerging writers is how to find your voice as a writer, or more precisely, understanding your true voice.
The quick answer here? You don’t need to do anything special to find it, it’s already there. Just write. Write a lot. Your voice will become evident only in retrospect.
I believe that a writer’s voice just emerges, and it emerges more quickly and clearly the more you write.
One day you are able to look back at your body of work and see the patterns — in how you use language, the images that show up consistently, the rhythm of your line, the themes that just show up for you again and again.
It took me a while to realize that the process of finding my voice as a writer was closely tied to finding my voice as a human being and, specifically, as a woman. In my first book of poetry, I wrote from a specific character’s point of view (Cassandra of Troy). I thought I was inhabiting her as a character in order to tell a story and make an intellectual point. Only later did I see the emotional reveal and vulnerability in her voice that was also my own voice as the writer at that point in time.
Whether you know it or not, you have a particular way of seeing the world. A friend of mine often gets asked why she writes such “dark” material and the answer is: she just can’t help it, it’s who she is as a writer. Her material is connected to her worldview, which relies on telling the truth about what’s really going on between men and women.
My friend sees things and can’t look away — and because she brings that intensity to her writing, neither can we as the readers. With that material though, she’s also tender and forgiving – with her characters and in how she describes the world in which they operate. Her writing is sensual and has a lyrical quality to it which comes from her years of practice as a poet. The combination of this lyricism and her worldview is what makes her voice unique. She didn’t try to create that, and she doesn’t get tied up thinking about her own voice as a writer. It has just emerged and evolved over the years she’s been writing.
It’s the same for you, I promise: you don’t need to find your voice, it’s already there.
If you’re struggling to see or articulate what makes up your own writers’ voice, it can become tied up with more essential struggles with self-doubt. The trick really is in relaxing into what comes, rather than trying to force something.
But I do understand that at a technical level everyone wants their writing to be distinctive, to have a mix of rhythms and diction, images and structure that only they could create. But how to get there from here?
I’ve prepared a writing exercise to walk you through how to assess someone else’s voice as a writer, and how to use those same questions to understand your own.
HOW TO FIND YOUR VOICE AS A WRITER
For Prose Writers: Fiction and Non-Fiction
Grab a book that you love. Open it to any page – the first page is fine, or just any random page in the book. Choose two to three paragraphs that you think really represent this particular author’s voice. You’ll need at least two good size paragraphs to make the most of this exercise, but if you have time, more is better.
Write out (yes, copy word for word) those selected paragraphs by hand. I recommend doing this exercise by hand to really root the words in your body.
Read the paragraphs out loud. (Maybe not in public, though?) Read it through several times, noticing the music in the line and the choices being made. Here are some guiding questions to consider as you think about this selection:
a) Does the author use short sentences, longer sentences, a mix of both?
b) What choices is she making at the level of the sentence or the line to carry the reader forward?
c) Are there a lot of descriptive words (adverbs and adjectives) or is the writing spare and pared down?
d) Do you notice anything interesting about how she uses punctuation? What feelings does this generate in you as a reader?
e) Does the author frequently use metaphor or compelling imagery to generate a particular experience in the reader?
f) Based on the writing alone in these two-three paragraphs, how do you think this author feel about her characters? Is she open and tender towards them, or a little more of cool and detached observer? Is she hopeful about the world they’re living in, or does she feel it’s harsh and unforgiving?
Now, describe the same paragraphs as though they were food. Does the writing feel smooth or crunchy, sweet or salty? Spicy or cool? Is it French Bistro or more corner bodega in Queens? Chili cheese dog or three course meal? Write out an entire page (again by hand) describing your chosen author’s writing sample as though it was a menu item you’re trying to convince someone to order as you sit down to dinner together.
It's then time to work with your own work. Choose 2-3 paragraphs of your own writing, ideally something already completed rather than a current work in progress. Rewrite these 2-3 paragraphs of your own work and as though you were the author you’ve just studied, using similar rhythms, sentence length, sensory details and worldview you identified in your favourite writer’s work.
Finally, review your own re-written paragraphs alongside your original version. Write 1-2 pages noticing and describing your own original work in the same way as you’ve just done for your chosen author. Use the guiding questions above in Step #3 to do some deep noticing about your own work and your own voice.
The exercise is essentially the same, except you will use 1-page poems, ideally one from a poet you admire and whose work is in a similar vein to your own (whatever that means to you: don’t overthink it) and a second 1-page poem from someone you wouldn’t normally read or enjoy.
Go through the exercise outlined in Steps #1-4 above. Where the prose writer looks at the sentence in question a, you want to observe the line and how the poet breaks the line. Where the prose writer looks at characters in question f, you want to ask yourself about poetics – from the choices the poet has made in constructing this poem on the page, what do you sense about their view of the world and the subject matter? Again, don’t overthink it: just go with your intuition and initial impressions based on this close read.
In Steps 5 & 6, use a 1-page poem of your own for rewriting and revisit it again using the modified guided questions from Step #3.
You can always come back and repeat this exercise with selections from other writers, and with your own work from time to time. Your voice isn’t fixed: it can and will change over time. Writing with an awareness of your own voice helps you to write in a way that reflects how you see the world around you, and that connection in turn will help keep you writing for a long time to come. But don't overthink it — approach this and everything else in your writing life with a dose of self-compassion.
Once you complete the exercise, I’d love to hear how it went and what you learned about how to find your voice as a writer in the process – feel free to reach out and send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (And if you're already on my email list, check your inbox for a print-ready version of the exercise.)