The Art and Science of Finding Your Voice

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At an early stage of your academic writing career, there’s a not-insignificant chance that someone—an editor, a reviewer, a trusted peer—is going to tell you that you need to work on finding your voice. This comment will typically be couched in general editorial feedback on something you’re trying to publish. You may hear that “your voice” is not coming through on the page, or that “you” are not in the text enough, or that your argument is somehow lost in a cacophony of competing voices or arguments.

For the beginning or early-career author, the instruction to find one’s voice is often perplexing or anxiety-provoking. And, truth be told, some mid-career authors still feel as if they haven’t quite found their voices yet—or as if they once had that voice, only to suddenly misplace it. (Yes, this is possible. If an author shifts genres or fields, she can lose her voice temporarily.)

Professional writers talk about “finding their voice” with a zeal akin to that of religious converts. It is the missing piece of an intricate puzzle; when an author finally finds it, it can feel like an epiphany. “Egads!,” the scribbler shouts, jumping up from her desk. “I’ve finally found it!” But until that blissful moment, the editorial instruction to “find your voice” can send an author into paroxysms of self-doubt. Questions abound: What is “a voice” in the first place? How does one go about locating it? When will I know I’ve found it?

In what follows, I’ll offer some concrete exercises and tips to help you along your path to discovery. But first we need to explore the biggest difficulty involved in the process.

The consternation that an author feels when she is first asked to find her voice is natural. This is a reflection of the fact that there is absolutely no consensus about what “voice” is. That’s the dirty secret all experienced writers eventually learn, and that’s why finding your voice is such a difficult task.

Voice is frequently conflated with an author’s style of writing. Sometimes it is described as akin to a writer’s unique authorial fingerprint. Think of an author like Mark Twain or Haruki Murakami or Maya Angelou or Barbara Kingsolver or Dorothy Parker. Or if you’d rather, think of a distinctive author in your particular field—for me it’s Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Sherry Ortner, or Eric Klinenberg. If an author has a distinctive “voice,” then we can often accurately attribute a text to its correct author even if her identity is concealed. Somehow we just know who wrote it. This is what “voice” encapsulates: an author’s habitual turn of phrase, her particular way of organizing a text, his certain way with description or analysis. In other words, voice is synonymous with prose style, but it also encapsulates more than just prose style. Voice is a reflection of how a writer sounds when he “talks” to his readers.

This column, for instance, is deliberately written in a conversational tone and with a consistent structure. If you’ve read any of my other essays, then you probably recognize it. First, I introduce the problem and then I offer exercises. Throughout each essay, I try to amplify my voice so that it echoes in your ears as you are reading these words. Developing a personal style requires you to vocalize your prose. Finding your voice is really about envisioning and communicating with your ideal reader for a piece.

Here’s my advice: Practice these six key techniques and exercises. They will help you speed up the process of finding and developing your distinctive voice. The first technique is the simplest and most powerful.

1. Free write. Free writing is a wonderful tool for discovering your voice (and for identifying your arguments). It requires you to sit down with a blank piece of paper or a blank document on your screen. You won’t have any other pieces of text to work with. No notes, no quotes, no evidence, no data. Just you and your thoughts. Write for 15 to 20 minutes without stopping. No backspacing or deleting or rearranging. Write whatever comes into your head—even if it’s “I don’t know what I’m writing.”

If you are working on an article or a book chapter, picture your reader, and really conjure her up. Envision her. You are talking to this person on the page. So talk to her. “Speak” to her in your own language. What do you need her to know about your subject? Give her some context, some background. But don’t talk forever and don’t overwhelm her with details. This is a one-sided conversation, but remember it’s still a conversation. Then start describing—in your own words—what your argument is. Walk her through it.

I recommend doing this exercise whenever you begin a new piece of writing. It also works wonders when you are stuck on something. But it is crucial to discovering your own words on a subject.

2. Read more. Always be reading. When you’re writing, it’s helpful to have a handful of writers you admire “on deck.” I learned this trick from my dissertation chair at the University of California at Berkeley, Xin Liu, but I’ve heard at least a dozen writers echo it. Stack a few key books or essays you love on your desk. Occasionally pick them up and read a few passages. But read them like a writer. Tear them apart like an engineer would take apart a machine in order to know how it works. Ask questions like: How did the author do it? Are the sentences long or short here? Is the writing clear or playful? What is the tone? How is the argument arranged? Is this structured in sections or not? Try to mimic the styles that you most esteem. Eventually, you’ll craft your own unique voice out of the hodgepodge of other styles that you’ve admired.

Also, read outside your field and your genre. I mean it. Don’t tell me you don’t have time. Pick up a thriller and try to learn how the author moves the story along. Read a cooking blog and see how the author describes the complicated steps for preparing a dish or how she manages to make her particular recipe for macaroni and cheese seem exotic and new. Peruse long, investigative magazine articles to see how to construct a tight narrative arc in a relatively short amount of space. There are tricks of the trade to be learned from anything you read. Eventually, if you read enough while you’re writing, you’ll pick up your “voice” almost by osmosis.

3. Write every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. Don’t get out of the habit. A writer’s voice develops in only one fashion—through continuous usage. The more you write, the more you’ll refine your skills. The more you revise and edit, the more you’ll see your own style start to emerge from the page.

4. Talk, don’t write. Try using voice-recognition software or a tape recorder and talk out your arguments. This is a great way to begin to recognize your own voice by literally hearing it.

5. Share your early drafts. Be open to feedback, even if it’s critical. It may hurt, but it’s often the best way to mature as a writer. If you think your writing comes across a certain way, but no one who reads your work agrees, you need to listen to them. Readers will let you know how your words sound to them. Gather as much feedback as you can, especially early on in your career. Readers can help you spot your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Coda: Learn to sort out constructive criticism from feedback that’s off the mark.

Which brings us to our last point …

6. Trust your instincts. You have to trust yourself to know when you’re good, when you need work, and when you’re talking utter nonsense. If you write every day, you should start to develop a pretty good feel for how you—and only you—write about your subject. Be honest with yourself, but be fair. Following your gut instinct about how best to write a particular piece of text will very often directly reveal your voice. After all, only you know how to write like you.

And when you finally find your voice, you’ll know it.

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