Speak for yourself.

Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow in "The Wizard of Oz"

Finding your voice as a writer.

When I meet someone for the first time, I can tell right away what makes them different from others. I get a better sense of who they are from their body language and their facial expressions than I do from what they say. That makes it so much harder to understand who someone is through writing alone, because all you have are their words. With a little practice, though, you can learn to use writing to communicate everything you normally would without words.

Anyone can take the words they say every day and type them out; what makes a writer stand out is his or her voice. A great voice can make you unique, but make you relatable at the same time. Your voice is your character as a writer. It’s the only way you can express yourself. It’s like a great speaker giving a boring speech – the content might not be that interesting, but the right delivery can make it so much better.

Finding a writing voice is much harder than finding a speaking voice, and I say this as someone who doesn’t think speaking is easy. Most people are born with a speaking voice. Most people are screaming the moment they come into the world. A writing voice takes a lifetime to develop. You have to be completely self-aware. If you’re not, you have to at least master the art of pretending. If you want to express yourself, you have to know what it is that you’re expressing.

And you have to know how to write: the tricky rules of grammar, or the difference between compliment and complement, or simply what does and doesn’t look good on a page. Once you’ve got that down, it’s about following your gut. That doesn’t always work out, but when it does it’s worth all the work it took to get there.

Once you’ve found your voice, you have to be willing to change it. Picture your favourite movie character. Would they still be the same person if they were played by another actor? Judy Garland made a perfect Dorothy, but if she had played the Wicked Witch of the West it would have been a very different character. The advantage of being a writer is that you can adapt yourself to play anyone you want, if you know how.

But I turned to writing because I needed to express myself, not because I wanted to use someone else’s voice. Adding personality to something dry is a nice touch, and it makes for better reading and better writing. The trick is to hit the tone you need for your piece while still using the voice you’ve developed. It’s not all or nothing – it’s about finding the perfect balance, and that’s the hard part.

How do you do that? It took me a long time to figure out, but here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Know your audience. You can make a textbook more interesting by adding some personality, but you have to be careful how far you push it. If you go too far and the focus is on your life experiences instead of teaching math, it won’t be an effective textbook. You will have failed your audience, because you haven’t given them what they need. Know when to keep going, but know when to stop.
  • Don’t be afraid of using your voice once you’ve got it. It’s scary to put yourself out there, especially in writing – once something is published, you can’t unpublish it. Make sure that what you’re saying is what you want to be saying. If it is, then don’t hold yourself back.
  • Start by writing what you want to write. Every writer has things they really want to say. If you say those things first, you can focus on everything else you have to say without being distracted by where you’re going. Sometimes it’s okay to write the ending first, especially if it makes the beginning better.
  • Think about what you (only you) can bring to whatever it is that you’re writing. Everyone has a unique take on things, and your perspective could add something special. But be careful that it doesn’t influence your work too much. There’s a time and a place for your opinion, and your thoughts on the election probably don’t belong in an instruction manual.
  • Most importantly, in my opinion: take the time to plan what your piece will be. Better than that – imagine what it could be. See the best in it, and then do everything you can to make it that good. Make it better if you can. If you really care about what you’re creating, your writing instincts will do a lot of the work.

Writing has taught me who I am, and if it’s done the same for you, don’t ever write something without remembering that. Give every single sentence the meaning it deserves, and your voice will come through no matter what.

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