Finding your voice as a writer …

Any accomplished singer will tell you that a voice over time matures, blossoms, and eventually settles into a distinct and recognizable vocal signature unique to an individual. In the art world, this principle is even easier to understand when one examines the early works of a famous artist and compares that body of work to his or her later efforts. Similarly, an avid student of classical music can recognize the style of specific musicians. For instance, Aaron Copland (one of my personal favorites) had a style that I can almost always identify. The same with George Gershwin or Gustav Holtz or Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Developing a writing style—finding your voice as a writer—is no different. It takes time, experience, knowledge—and lots and lots of trial and error and practice and experimentation to discover and settle into the distinctive voice that is yours alone. Open books by Hemingway and Steinbeck and right away you’ll see the vast differences in their styles.

So, how do you find your own voice? As one who has been at this writing game a long time, I offer three suggestions:

First, read, read. Read voluminously and read broadly. Never limit yourself to one author or one genre or one time period. Read different styles, different authors, and different approaches, including the masters, because in doing so, you will absorb parts of their individual styles. Think of it as absorbing different musical phrases, learning new brush strokes, or developing new techniques.

For a time, you may begin to write like an author you admire. I know I did. For a time, I mimicked the style of writer Catherine Marshall. But the more I read—especially the wider I read—the more styles and tricks and shades and colors of writing I absorbed. Readers do this almost unconsciously, although I will confess to underlining (always in pencil) phrases in books that I find especially interesting or effective.

If you don’t read broadly—and many writers limit themselves to a single genre—you will not find and develop to the fullest your unique style.

Second, experiment. From your reading, try your hand at sounding like Hemingway or Steinbeck. It’s good practice, and like copying the golf swing of Tiger Woods or the lovely diction of Sir Anthony Hopkins, parts of those excellent characteristics will gradually merge with your own. Think of it this way: If I were to try and speak in strict “Anthony Hopkins,” my natural Southern accent would still be in there somewhere…..and if my 5″3″ frame were to emulate Tiger Woods, well, I’m sure you get the idea.

Some might say this is borrowing too much, but throughout history the masters of any field of study or art have built on work of the most accomplished. It’s creating a unique voice all your own by learning from the best of the best.

And third, be courageous. Writers—all of them—have split personalities. It is essential for writers to be insecure enough to listen and learn, yet bold enough to actually write. [That last sentence is another post in itself!] Finding your voice requires that you write. Do not let fear, especially fear of failure, derail you.

I once corresponded with author Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo. He offered a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten. “Writing is hard,” he wrote, “and a lot of people are full of whacky advice about it. All I can really tell you is to write in a way that makes you feel nervous, like it is either fantastic or terrible. Take risks, however you define that.”

If you do these three things and work at your craft, you will find you voice. The secret is to go after it—and to enjoy the journey.

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