Anyone can put words down on paper, but just because the words are there doesn’t mean they’re anything anyone wants to read. That’s because the hardest thing about writing is finding your voice. It’s the writer’s unique style – their voice – that shines through to make any writing engaging.
I see this problem all the time with my business writing clients. They’ve certainly got plenty to say – they’re experts in their fields, business owners with decades of experience and tons of valuable information to impart. But I find that as a communications consultant (my day job outside of writing fiction), my clients tend to fall into one of two buckets: either they’re pretty decent writers but need help organizing their writing, or – more commonly – they’re struggling with their voice.
In the case of the under-developed voice, the writing just sounds… off. Despite making good points and imparting valuable wisdom, whatever piece my client is trying to write is just not hitting the right notes of professionalism and personality. Instead it sounds immature, dry, flat – not at all how they come across when you speak to them, but they just aren’t as compelling on paper as they are in person. What’s missing in their writing? Their voice.
The big secret here is that there really is no secret to bringing your own unique style to your writing. It’s simply about having confidence in what you have to say – and in the act of writing itself.
The reason many of my business clients’ writing sounds shaky is because they don’t believe they can be good writers. They are certainly confident in the information they’re sharing – after all, they’ve spent 20+ years amassing that knowledge in the field – but for most of these individuals, they stopped getting coached on their writing back in high school, or perhaps well before then.
Think about it – when the last thing anyone told you that you could write successfully was a 4th grade book report, it kind of makes sense that you’d continue to write that way. It’s easy for a smart person to give up on writing – and their writer’s voice – when all they’ve ever seen since is a B or C or D in red ink on their papers. Pretty soon writing gets put in that box of “things I don’t do well” and they leave it there, because no one ever pushed them to do better. Positive reinforcement is a powerful thing. The thing is, positive reinforcement is also very hard to come by.
In my own case, I found my voice in high school, writing under the guidance of a few very engaged and very encouraging teachers. I’d always been a good writer (at least according to my mom, haha) but when I look back at my early writing, I see myself falling into the very common trap of trying to write in someone else’s voice, the way I thought writing should sound since that’s how it sounded to me when I read. Even with engaging subject matter, my early writing felt forced, awkward, unnatural – and that’s because I wasn’t writing like me.
I’m forever in debt to my high school teachers because they saw something in my writing – the potential for something more – and they took the time to push me to develop it further. My junior year English teacher founded a two-week summer camp specifically designed to help a handful of flourishing writers from our school develop their creative writing skills and invited me to join. She then managed to foster an environment at the camp where we felt uninhibited and free to experiment without judgment (or grades!) getting in the way.
My senior year English teacher was well-known for teaching to rigorous standards in preparation for the upcoming AP exams, but seeing my potential, he held me to even higher standards than the rest of my peers. I still have many of my papers from that class, and his meticulous notes scrawled in the margins of the page helped me to recognize and develop stylistic traits that I’d been doing unconsciously – parallelisms and unexpected personification, playfulness with words, a love of vocabulary and a more formal tone. He helped me to realize that I had a voice, and that it was okay to use it.
I even had a fabulous math/computer science teacher both of those years who was an admittedly terrible writer himself – but he recognized my own talents in that area, and actually asked me to help him write/edit pieces that he knew needed to come across as professional and credible, including college recommendation letters for other students. Can you imagine at 17 years old how much confidence that gave me in my own abilities as a writer?
What these experiences all had in common was that they made it clear that not only did I have a voice, but it was one that other people were interested in hearing. That set me on the right path of knowing who I was as a writer and having the confidence to develop my own unique voice further.
But not all writers have been lucky enough to have had that kind of support early on. So my advice? Seek it out. Join a writers group – whether online, in your city, or through a local college – and just write. Get people to read your writing, listen to their feedback, and just keep writing until it feels natural. Eventually, you should start to hear your own voice in your head when reading your writing. Practice until it’s authentic.
And, most importantly, don’t worry about writing something perfect – after all, I still cringe reading certain parts of Stitch. Nothing you write will ever be perfect. The important thing is that you’re always improving, and always being real in your writing, doing what comes naturally to you even if it means breaking a few rules. After all, writers are people too – we’re individuals, we have unique personalities and quirks, and we’re not perfect! Our writing should reflect that.
The fact of the matter is, the sooner you believe in your abilities as a writer, the sooner your voice will ring loud and clear. You just have to give yourself permission to be heard.