PocketChange has moved!

You should be automatically redirected to its home on my new site, SkaareWorks, in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Looking For Your Writing Voice

Writing is a crapshoot these days. Never has the opportunity to express oneself publicly been greater. The blogosphere, Twitter, self-publishing – they’re readily available outlets.

Yet, the chances of getting heard are slim, getting read even slimmer. A guesstimated 200 million bloggers are competing for public attention. Lightning-rod marketer Guy Kawasaki may be “following” your comments on Twitter, but that's what 49,728 others are thinking too. A reputation-boosting response from him is unlikely. And self-publishing rarely catches the eye of critics and promoters.

Yet we keep writing. Writing is compulsive for many of us. We’re trying to find a voice -- our voice -- a voice that makes sense of the soul-searching scratchings in our journals, a voice that resonates with our blog audience.

How do you find that voice – that way of expressing what is distinctly, perhaps uniquely you … that has your name on it? I’m going to give you three ways to find your voice and five exercises to train it. But, first …

Let me say something that may sound a bit dumb about knowing when your voice emerges. Ready? You will know your true voice when, after writing, you involuntarily say “Hmmh!” That’s right, “Hmmh.” Not “okay, done” or “good enough,” but “Hmmh.”

That grunt will be a blend of surprise, joy, and release. You will see before you in your work someone you know. That someone looks confident, likable, authentic, clear-headed, open-minded, uncluttered, and, most important, appealing to readers.

The voice:
  • emerges from some inside vault not from all the advice you received and writing courses you took – though they were contributors.
  • arises unpredictably, at odd times, usually when you least expect it: for example, after hours of writing dribble followed by a half-hour of crafting something magical.
  • comes often when you write less, not more.
  • arrives when you hear yourself mumbling and humming; and
  • comes out when you stop trying to force it out.
Okay, how do you get to “Hmmh,” to that special voice?

3 Paths to Hmmh

1 Clear your mind’s throat
Finding and expressing your voice is not a matter of writing mechanics but of … well, clearing the mental flem that clogs your thinking: unsettling memories, self-doubt, fear of being exposed in writing and watching others laugh at your nakedness.

Certainly writing is therapeutic, but it’s purpose is not therapy, especially if you share it with others, say, on a blog. Frankly, the audience lacks the credentials, time, and interest to heal you.

Before publishing what’s in your head, you first have to stand up to the false voices jostling for attention in your head. Don’t let one of them take over your writing. For instance, don’t allow anger to persuade you that he’s your voice. The best writers may give anger at least a hearing and then write satire; for most, however, anger’s false voice is whining.

Avoid letting narcissism speak up and forcing you to write, “I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had a minute to blog. I apologize for causing you concern.” Narcissism says, understand me, look at me because I don’t know how to talk about you, the reader, never mind listen to you.

And about nakedness. You will never get beyond your fear of being shamed publicly if you dress up your writing in someone else’s clothes. Stop copying the boring constructions, styles and clich├ęs of safe writers. It’s all dull writing. (Sorry, my anger voice just shouted) You don’t have to blend in. Trust yourself, trust your voice. Admit that you are not what people think you are; you’re actually better!

2 Get in shape
Editing – tedious editing – is not optional for at least two reasons. Hard-nosed self-editing removes what we refuse to admit is waste in our writing and, second, it gets our first-draft voice arguing with our true writing voice.

Writing creates a lot of by-products: some are recyclable, others are trash. You need a folder for those writing fragments you might use in a later piece. But you also need a dumpster.

Be careful, however, that you don’t throw away something valuable like the very pregnant friend of mine did when she tossed bags of trash into a dumpster in an isolated area and also tossed in the car keys. She carefully climbed onto a box, maneuvered her way up, over, and down deep into the dumpster and miraculously found the keys. However, she then realized she had nothing solid to stand on to get out. She was rescued by two locals who heard the dumpster’s voice crying faintly for help. Imagine what she could write with that voice.

If we don’t do the hard work of editing – and I’m talking three drafts – a shrill voice emerges and tries to persuade us that the burst of inspiration that splashed eloquent prose across your screen merits publication. Wait! Don’t trust that voice. What you produced may have been the result of an emotional spike, a weariness to just get the project done, or a vision that said, “look at me, I’m a writer.”

If you hear a voice telling you to go back to editing because you’re almost there, but not quite, stay with it, and listen because that’s your writing voice.

3 Give it a rest
I have two thoughts on how long to wait until you find your writing voice and when to let it speak.

First, if you believed me when I said that your voice is not found in an inspired gush of prose and also believed me when I said you have to talk tough to yourself in the editing process, you must now believe me when I say that you have to write at least an hour or more almost every day for the next several months before you will hear the voice.

Perhaps your voice will take a month to surface, but maybe a year. Be patient. Along the way you will produce some good writing. What’s more important is that you will have generated writing that will talk with you if you keep rereading it. You will hear your voice in the distance getting increasingly louder as you remove the padding that's muffling it.

When you hear that involuntary "Hmmh” that comes from your true voice, should you declare your work done or do you back off and let it settle for awhile. I vote for waiting 12 hours. I talked about holding back in an earlier post called “Regret Writing." I’ll repeat what I said there:

My 12-hour rule says, after you write passionately about something, hit the Save and then Shut Down buttons on your computer not the Send button. After a good night’s rest, read what you wrote – grimace and groan -- and you will know how the recipient would have understood it had you sent it. Then, either Edit and Send, or Delete. Even when you have found your writing voice, it can be raspy and still not easy to understand. Give it a rest.
5 Voice-training exercises

  1. If emotions are clamoring for attention as you think about writing, type quickly, even mechanically for 15 minutes. Most of them will get bored and leave. The one or two that hang on want you to say something about them in your writing. Offer a sentence or two, then close the door behind them. You will hear them knocking at times. Don’t let them back in.

  2. Reading lots of good fiction is the best way to understand the concept of voice. I think John Irving’s voice is exceptionally and consistently clear.

  3. If you are convinced that your voice spoke very late one night in a rush of poetic wordiness, wake up your spouse or roommate and ask him or her to read what you wrote. If it doesn’t make sense to a half-awake person who has little interest then it probably won’t work with a half-asleep person the next day who has little interest.

  4. Editing is like dieting: the more fat you can cut out and the more strenuous the exercise, the better you will ultimately look.

  5. Try trimming this blog post by 300 words without losing my voice.

Richard Skaare 01.19.09


JohnLM said...

I saw your note on the LinkedIn Gruops distribution. You are right about the need to be heard. But, I wonder if you meant these two things to be the other way around. It's the only part of your post that doesn't make sense to me, "chances of getting heard are slim, getting read even slimmer."

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading your blog. It's a very calm, logical, relaxing way of becoming a better writer. I appreciate the work you do.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Fabulous piece! I particularly like the "5 Voice Training Exercises" -- can I relate??

earlygirl said...

That part about waiting the 12 hours? Right on. Hard lesson. Good reminder.

Julie McElroy said...

I love this article. I just wrote a similar article as I am at a writer's crossroads.

Perfect Notes said...

Richard thank you. As someone finally scratching the writing itch in his late fifties I found your article helpful and a little sobering. I'm in the locating voice stage so the information was very timely. Thank you.

Amy said...

I recognize that "surprise, joy, and release" response. It feels to me as if something that was being held still has suddenly been allowed to move. Very engaging post.