Who Are You When Your Write?
What do we mean when we talk about voice? I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years and it took me a long time to get my head around the idea of voice. Put simply: Voice is who you are when you write.
That’s easy to say but harder to do. Most of us write instinctively. We don’t think too much about what we sound like because we just assume that we sound like ourselves.
This isn’t always the case and sometimes you don’t want to sound like yourself when you write.
For example, in the old days at Forbes, my stories never ran without an extremely heavy dose of editing. It wasn’t uncommon for an editor to completely rewrite a story before it was published. Forbes in the early ’00s definitely had a snarky tone but I found that when I tried to emulate that in my first drafts, it never went well and my editors just seemed annoyed. So instead I wrote the strongest, most straightforward stories I could and then handed them over to the folks above my pay grade who snarked it up.
Looking back, I realize they were taking my voice out and inserting the Forbes voice. And that was appropriate. The needs of the magazine were greater than the needs of any individual writer. And while I could see the differences in the stories, I couldn’t have told you specifically what my voice sounded like.
When I moved into blogging more the rules started to change. At first, the website was viewed as just an extension of the magazine. We were expected to write high quality stories in journalistic prose. But as the blogging platform evolved, the editors started encouraging us to find our own voices.
I tried to do that a little writing about seeing movies with my children, and writing more about how painfully white and male Hollywood is. But I always felt a little uncomfortable writing these kinds of articles because of my old school journalism training. We were taught to be objective. (Isn’t that hysterical?) Taking a point of view was uncomfortable.
Now that I’m no longer limited by (what I saw as) the restrictions of professional journalism, I’m trying harder to find my own voice, especially here on Medium. I want to sound professional, optimistic and upbeat. I try to make sure I’m writing about topics that will resonate with other people. I do this mostly through editing. If I find myself navel-gazing, complaining or talking about problems without offering solutions, I cut and kill.
But I know that as someone who has written almost daily for so many years, finessing my voice is a luxury. For people who are just starting out, just putting words on the page is hard enough, voice feels like another giant mountain to climb.
But it’s something I’d encourage you to think about. From the broadest perspective, decide who you want to be when you write. Are you someone sitting in a bar telling stories to your friends? Are teaching lessons? Are you a parent commiserating about the difficulties of child rearing? Are you shining a light on a misunderstood group or problem? Be concrete and have that point of view in the back of your mind. It will help form your voice.
From a more granular perspective you can start to develop your voice just by working on your writing. I was actually inspired to write this story by a memo put out by a huge corporation on how to write in the corporation’s voice. Now that I do mostly corporate work, this kind of thing is important to me. A lot of companies put together these kinds of documents and they’re usually pretty weak but this one was excellent, filled with specifics about writing in the company’s voice. A lot of this actually echoed what I wrote in a previous post: Improve Your Writing In 5 Easy Steps. But it reinforced for me the idea that if you can write clearly and engagingly, your voice can come through.
Whether you feel it or not, your writing does have a voice. Make sure it’s a voice that feels like you or who you want to be when you write. Your readers will thank you.