Step 1: Find your voice
Voice. It’s usually one of the hardest concepts for new writers or “non-writers” (those people who tell you, “I’m not a writer” but actually they are because they still send emails/update their Facebook status/write notes in birthday cards) to wrap their heads around.
I think it’s because you spend so many years writing five-paragraph essays and academic research reports, graded by teachers and professors who X-out any inkling of voice or creativity. Unless you’re blessed with a lucky teacher or two who helps cultivate you as a writer (thank you, Mrs. Couture/Jen Augur!), you spend 18ish years stripping any and all voice right out of your writing.
But if you ask me (and let’s assume you did because – here you are – reading my blog), a strong voice is what sets great writers and great copy apart. Establish your own tone, really nail your personal writing style, and you immediately separate yourself from 90 percent of the garbage out there.
So, OK great. Voice is a must. But how do you actually figure yours out?
Throw conventions out the window.
No really, I’m serious. All that five paragraph essay nonsense you learned about in eighth grade? Forget it. (Most of it. Remember a little bit of it, because a teensy shred of it was actually kind of relevant.)
There are rules in writing – sure. But most of them are made to be broken. Nine times out of 10, no one’s going to be there to slash red pen through each line of the email you wrote. Contractions are OK. A run-on sentence isn’t going to kill anyone – especially if it’s written in a way that sounds authentic. So long as you’re not throwing commas all over the damn place or writing typo-laden notes, no one’s going to come chasing after you.
If the rules of the writing road really do matter to you, then take the time to learn and master them. But don’t let your fear of them hold you back from picking up your pen in the first place.
Do some character work.
I used to work at an agency where I helped clients develop and execute their content marketing strategies. One of my favorite things about that job was helping new customers identify their brand style and voice.
“If your brand was a person, who would it be?” I’d ask. “How would she describe herself? What qualities would he have? What would your brand read on the weekends?”
(I know. You’re like, “Umm, my brand wouldn’t read anything on the weekends because it’s a brand and doesn’t have eyes. Or a brain. Or opposable thumbs to flip/scroll through the page.”)
One of my favorite answers was from a company that was trying to reinvent itself to engage Millennials (we’re so popular, guys!). They had clearly thought deeply about the question, because they said, “We’re business savvy. We’re experts in our industry, probably the smartest guy in the room, and we’ll tell you everything we know in a way that makes you feel smart, too. But, while everyone else is wearing suits and ties, we’re in shorts and flip flops.” That answer blew my hair back. I remember thinking, “YES!! These people get. it.”
You’re not a brand, obviously. But you can still identify the qualities you want to convey. Start by thinking about some key attributes you want associated with your writing. Do you want it to sound academic or should it feel like we’re catching up over your kitchen table? Are you buttoned up or is your style more laid-back?
Figure that out and then get ready to…
Take the training wheels off.
When I was in college and first starting this blog’s predecessor (my weekly column of the same name), I seriously struggled. I had this newfound freedom to write about whatever I wanted! In whatever style I wanted! But I was totally lost on how to do it. I kept trying to apply a journalistic/academic voice to my writing – mainly because I didn’t know any other style to write in – and it just. didn’t. work.
The more I kept trying to contain my copy to that style, the more I hated that damn column. Until one week, when I wrote on a topic that had me really heated. I was so up in arms over it that I sat down at my laptop and, for about 30 minutes, typed exactly what was in my head on that subject. Off came the training wheels and my voice – my raw, unfiltered, really real voice – came busting out.
That was the first week where my column actually resonated with people. I know because kids came up to talk with me about it. Later on, my friend and co-editor at that paper helped me identify what made the column work.
“It reads like how you sound. It’s like we’re sitting across from each other having a cup of coffee,” she said.
The simplicity of that concept blew my hair back. I remember thinking, “YES!! Now I finally get. it.”
Whatever your voice is, this is what it really boils down to: Good writing isn’t boring. Good writing has personality and it exudes the kind of something different that makes you feel things and makes you think and – above all else – makes you want to keep reading.