5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice

A bird apparently singing full out

by Andy Morffew | via Flickr

Today’s guest post is from author Jennifer Loudon (@jenlouden).


Developing your writer’s voice requires you to know yourself and reveal that self in your writing: this is who I am and this is what I care most about.

To develop your voice you must investigate and own your singular way of noticing your world, and then practice and hone your singular way of capturing that noticing. You must step away from other people’s opinions and stories, from what you may think you should sound like, and get curious about your opinions, your stories, your experiences.

Avoid doing this work and you may well find your writing stalls out and begins to feel flat, even pointless. Turn toward developing your voice and you may find big dividends: more flow and energy, more readers, more publishing and other opportunities, and most of all, more sincere and satisfying work.

So how do you get your voice development cooking? Here are five time-tested ideas you may find useful.

1. Be Devoted to Paying Attention

Cartoonist, podcaster, and teacher Jessica Abel advises her students to “Pay attention to what you pay attention to,” while Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett said, “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

What lights you up? What drives you batty? What problem do you have a solution for?  What images compel you? What sentence structures make your heart zing? What words do you love—or hate?

All of these can be sources of your voice, but you must pay exquisite attention to them or they poof! disappear. Cultivate noticing what you notice, noting it, and valuing it even though it makes no sense (yet). Make space to these clues by taking a sabbatical from social media and Netflix (just an evening works wonders). Boredom and silence are your voice’s ally as you recognize and heed what captures your mind and heart.

2. Show Your Mistakes

Your voice won’t fully mature if you edit as you write. One of my writing retreat participants, Erin, said:

“My writing process hinged on editing. I wanted to say things perfectly, compulsively. My creative process consisted of a flash of inspiration and then the editing of that flash of inspiration repeatedly and compulsively until I was bored and it was boring. The hard work for me is to write through the bad.”

Try generating new material without deleting as you go. Leave a string of your not-quite-right words and ideas. What happens if you erase your first inkling? You interrupt the flow that will soon lead you to what you really want to say. Tidying as you go cuts off your process. Learn to tolerate seeing the mess so your voice has room to grow and permission to show itself.

3. Focus on Your Reader—or Not

Having one specific reader in mind can be a tremendous way to focus your work. For example, writing this post, I have a writing student in mind who’s struggling with bland writing because she’s hampered by too much writing advice. She’s helping me focus on the most salient ideas rather than skittering all over the place. However, if I think about you, a reader I don’t know, I freeze up, thinking, What should I write?

Each project invites you to decide when to have a reader in mind. If you’re writing an article for LinkedIn Pulse about ways to deal with a difficult but valuable employee, it might be a huge time saver to imagine your friend who works in HR. But if you find yourself editing, parsing words, shying away from the more complex or messy thoughts because your reader is looming over you, put her out of the room—for now. Bring your reader in on the second or even third draft. Sometimes your voice needs some privacy to reveal itself.

4. Feed Your Envy

The poet Billy Collins spoke at the White House Poetry Student Workshop about how to find your voice. He believes you must “Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous.”

Then he suggests you key into these poets, mimicking the ones you admire until their influences weave and combine into something new: your voice.

I agree with Mr. Collins, but only if you combine this kind of reading and copying with being devoted to paying attention. You need inner and outer influences to support your voice’s development.

Here are two specific ways to use envy to strengthen your voice:

  • When you read something that makes you want to give up writing because it’s so damn good and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to make that kind of magic, write out the passage you love in longhand—it takes longer and you learn more by doing so. Then ask yourself, “Why do I love this so much?” Discuss with a writer friend. Be prepared to struggle mightily to understand why. Bonus: do this with a piece of writing you hate—sometimes even more illuminating.
  • Create a lexicon for a specific project. If you’re writing a novel set in the southwest desert, gather plant names, geologic formations, types of clouds. Search poetry, history, guide books, and novels. Write down only what attracts you. This is nourishment for your voice and your project! (Hat tip to Seattle writing teacher Priscilla Long for this idea.)

5. Read Aloud

You can’t recognize and then strengthen your voice if you don’t hear it—and hearing it in your head isn’t the same as hearing it spoken aloud. Get in the habit of reading what you write out loud. I print and read everything before I send something out and also whenever I’m feeling all snarled up in my organization.

Want to accelerate your voice development? Read out loud to another person without any feedback. This is utterly maddening to your inner approval junkie: “But what does she think about my writing?!?” The magic comes because you turn toward yourself and listen for where you are being true to what you wanted to say and where you’re skirting the truth, where you dug deep and where you skimmed the surface, settling for clichés. Of course, there are plenty of times when getting specific feedback from other writers is useful—but not when it comes to honing your voice.


Which of these ideas will you try out in your next writing session? Choose one idea from this post to put into action in the next twenty-four hours, then come back here and tell me what you discovered.

Claiming and sharing your voice will challenge you. You may feel resistance and fear because you’re leaving known territory. Plus, it’s more work! But your writing will be truer, will affect your reader more deeply, and you’ll be more satisfied with the process, and perhaps even the result. It may well require more of you than you could imagine (I know it does me) but when I make the effort, I end a writing session tired but oh so much more satisfied.

May you give voice to the ideas and stories that only you can write.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , .
Jennifer Louden

Jennifer Louden

Jennifer Louden is a seven-time author and has more than a million books in print in nine languages. If you have a creative project on your so-excited-to-complete list that you need some help with, get Jen’s brand new guide, How to Follow Through on Your Creative Desire by clicking right here.

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28 Comments on "5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice"

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Mia Sherwood Landau
These are terrific ideas, Jen. I’d like to share one that surprised me this week. As a ghostwriter, normally I write in first or second person. But I had an assignment to write in third person point of view for a news story. It took quite an effort to slip out of my conversational habit and into a journalistic style. And I could feel my voice growing and expanding in the process. Now I’m going to read more news stories and actually pay attention to my reaction to them, how I process them, and why. Thanks for this great post,… Read more »
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[…] Author Jennifer Louden offers five tips for developing and strengthening your writer's voice.  […]

Phil and Maude Mayes

I’m a narrator as well as a writer, and I want to plug #5: Read Aloud as a powerful tool. It will catch errors that multiple proof-readers have overlooked: doubled-up words, incorrect tenses, inconsistent voice. It will illuminate the cadence of a passage. It will tell you your sentences are too long or too short or all the same length. Try it. Five minutes reading your own work may surprise you.

Marja McGraw

All good suggestions! Thanks so much for sharing.

Linda Apple

I really enjoyed this article, especially the Feed Your Envy. I have read authors who made me want to give up because their prose was so deliciously magical. Now I know how to turn that negative into a positive!

MooseNotes.com
I focus on myself as the reader. I write my essays in a voice that is totally, udderly me. I write in the same way I talk — and, yes, I really do substitute udderly for utterly. It drives my mom nuts. But it’s all a part of the authenticity in my writing. What’s interesting about this, though, is that it has taken years and years to develop. I’m writing in the same manner I speak, but I actually had to learn how to relax into my writing and write for myself before I could feel grounded and genuine on… Read more »
MooseNotes.com

Oh, wow. I just realized you’re the author of ‘The Woman’s Comfort Book!’ And thank you for the free ‘follow through’ guide. Adorable photo!!

:o))

Jennifer Louden

thank you!!!

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[…] of your own to help you identify yourself from the sea of writers out there. By reading “5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice” by Jennifer Loudon at Jane Friedman, you will learn simple yet effective ways to refine your […]

Vishal

Loved it!

I can’t wait for 24 hours to write again because I’ve tried all these ways already.

But you gave me an assurance that whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it right 🙂

Thanks Jennifer.

Marilyn Yocum

Loved all these ideas. I lost my voice and bearings after an enormous grief. This is so helpful. I especially loved Billy Collins’ advice about reading until you find work you are jealous of. I’ve been zeroing in on that more and more in recent months, having that feeling, feeling kind of bad about it, not realizing it’s a good and helpful thing, a directional signal. I think I’ll go do some copying over now.

Jennifer Louden

Yes grief can do that to you, I understand Marilyn. Good luck on the journey back or perhaps not back but to a new voice honed from your grief and all the ways you have changed.

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[…] 5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice (Jane Friedman) To develop your voice you must investigate and own your singular way of noticing your world, and then practice and hone your singular way of capturing that noticing. You must step away from other people’s opinions and stories, from what you may think you should sound like, and get curious about your opinions, your stories, your experiences. […]

Lilith Darville
Thanks for the great post, Jennifer. Shows me I’m on the right track, although it may be a lifelong struggle for me to silence my internal editor while writing my first draft. I particularly love “Feed Your Envy”, which I do on a regular basis. I probably spend more time promoting my writer heroines than myself. lol I’m working on the lexicon for my next book right now (using Scrivener). What a great idea! I thing my best advice to myself is continue to submerse myself in finding my voice. It’s so easy to change that voice based on editor/agent… Read more »
Jennifer Louden

Thanks Lilith! I know the push pull between editors and readers very well… always walking that tightrope but it’s a numbers game in the end – if we write enough and get it out there, then we are going to be expressing and honing our voice. At least that is my hope!

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[…] Jennifer Loudon: 5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice  […]

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[…] 5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice by @jenlouden […]

Rick George

Thank you for sharing these insights–they spoke to me at my stage of development. I’m going to use the one about jealousy with my writers’ group.

Gloria Boom

Jennifer, thanks for the article. I think I’ve just got one of the most important writing pieces of advice – read out loud: “hearing it in your head isn’t the same as hearing it spoken aloud”. It’s so obvious and complicated at the same time. Thanks!

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[…] When we sit down to write, we are all searching for our unique writer’s voice. Just what is that, and how do we find it? Roz Morris & Joanna Penn explore how to find your author voice, and Jennifer Louden lists 5 ways to develop a writer’s voice. […]

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[…] blog. A couple weeks ago, this one from author Jennifer Loudon on developing your writing voice: “5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice.” (I’ve written some on this myself: here and here, just for […]

Lily

Thank you for this. Im writing a memoir, I have a creative writng tutor helping me and she shared your site with me. This helps me understand what to look for in my own voice. I still have a long way to go.

Danielle Bernock

Great article. I just fully read this today – I’m so glad I emailed this link to myself back in August when I was too busy to give it my full attention. The timing today was perfect and speaks to me about my last post on my blog where I was catching myself from getting stuck in too much outside information. I will be passing this along to some writer friends of mine. Thank you!

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