Consciously Develop Your Voice Like a Non-Native English Student
Concrete activities to tame the most elusive writing trait
Voice. Voice. Voice. You’ve probably heard a literary agent say a hundred times that they’ve picked up a client because they have a unique “voice”. If you’re like me, you’ve then glanced at your manuscript and wondered how the bejeezus do you develop your voice.
A quick internet search will offer you advice from the best writers. In MasterClass’s article, How to Find Your Voice in Writing: 5 Steps to Developing a Strong Voice, world-famous authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King advise you to:
- Understand your reason for writing. Why do you write?
- Choose a consistent voice for your work. What is your narration style?
- Define your sentence structure and word choice. Do you write in perfect English? Do you include slang?
- Discover your balance between description and dialogue.
- Practice. Practice. Practice.
Though I agree with these tips, what happens when you’re a novice writer, and — for the life of you — the advice feels more elusive than the actual voice.
How do you start? What are concrete exercises you can do to understand your writing motivation, your preferred narrator type, your favored sentence structure and word choice, your balance? How can you ensure that your practice time is building your voice and not wasting your time?
As I was finishing the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification, I stumbled upon the best practices on how to teach voice to non-native speakers.
From basic to advanced, TESOL teachers have concrete techniques to help learners develop their voice from the start of their English journey.
If you’re a novice writer, these may guide you to consciously develop your voice. But first…
What Is Voice?
Read the following phrases:
- I guess we should care about “climate change”.
- We should care about climate change!
These phrases have more or less the same words, yet they have entirely different meanings. In the first, we can assume the writer doesn’t believe in climate change. In contrast, the second clearly has the opposite position
That is voice. It’s how — tone, style, personality, point of view — you present information. It affects how the audience perceives what you’re trying to transmit. It’s the difference between a bland, yawn-inducing article and an engaging read.
Many English teachers neglect voice in favor of more tangible writing skills like grammar, punctuation, conventions, and structure. TESOL teachers don’t.
Here are their techniques:
TESOL Techniques to Develop Your Voice
To have a full grasp on voice, it’s essential to learn to detect it and to deliberately practice.
Activities to detect voice:
- Perform dramatic readings of texts, half of them famous for their strong voice, the other half bland. Reading them out loud will illustrate how writing can have personality and tone. It will make you more adept at distinguishing what voice sounds like.
- Read similar texts intended for different audiences. For example, an email to a professor, to a friend, etc. Bonus points if it’s your writing. It will allow you to determine your current voice.
Activities to deliberately practice voice:
- Rewrite sentences to change their meaning (like the climate change example). This will help you grasp the power of word choice, sentence structure, and punctuation when it comes to voice. Moreover, it will illustrate the importance of intention when writing.
- Rewrite short stories based on different adverbs (angrily, jealously, trustingly, innocently, etc.) This will force you to change how you present the information. In other words, the voice.
- Rewrite texts by changing the narrator. For example, first write from a first-person POV and then from an omniscient POV. This will help you decide which type of narration works for you.
- Rewrite texts from different perspectives. For example, write about a day in the life of a dog, then of a store clerk, then of your mother, and so on.
- Rewrite the ending of an article to change the meaning of the story.
- Write personal essays, articles, or whatever you choose about something you’re passionate about (even controversial topics). This is why lots of writing advice centers on feeling emotion while you write. When you experience and convey feelings, you’re automatically including voice.
- Practice humor or irony in a text. Evaluate how this affects quality.
Overall, TESOL teachers focus on deliberate experimentation of the different aspects that make up voice. Once you’re able to spot it and understand your preferences regarding word choice, narration style, sentence structure, and more, it’s a matter of practice, practice, practice.
Who knows? Maybe literary agents will clamor over your voice one day.