How to Be a Writer: tips to help find your voice

How to Be a Writer is a series that is titled exactly as it sounds. In the digital age, writers are facing new issues on top of the old. As publishing continues to shift and change, not only are writers forced to change as well, they’re establishing themselves entirely differently, making breaking into the scene even more challenging. In this series, we offer up tips, tricks, and general commentary on the journey (or slog) that is being a writer.

An evil sea witch probably did not steal it from you, a group of judges in spinning chairs will not pick one out for you with the sound of a buzzer—you’ll have to discover it for yourself. That’s right. We’re talking about finding your voice as a writer.

Voice is determined by many things: sentence structure, vocabulary, syntax, diction, punctuation, and cadence in a body of work. Pair these staples with personality, panache, and a specific point of view, and often enough you’ll have a writing voice.

How does one find a stronger writer’s voice?

Some pro tips include:

1. Reading

What revolutionary advice! Yes, writers, you have to read. Reading will improve your writing. It improves your vocabulary, grammar, syntax, structure, and storytelling. My advice is to read anything and everything. Read all kinds of writing, not just novels or journalism. Read the great 20th-century fiction writers—some of my favorites include Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, Roth, Nabokov, Hemingway, Joyce. Read the best playwrights—Ibsen, O’Neill, Miller, Beckett, Chekov, Shakespeare. Read poetry from the likes of E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Charles Bukowski, Emily Dickinson. Read graphic novels and comic books from Alan Moore and Max Brooks. Read your favorite news publications, your favorite magazines, your favorite periodicals. Read biographies and autobiographies. Read long-form nonfiction à la Hunter S. Thompson and Irvine Welsh. Read, dammit.

Read until you find what you love. Whether it’s high-brow, pulpy, or popular fiction, just read. And read well-written things. A recent article in The New Yorker questioned the “just so long as they’re reading” movement, and this advocacy is great for non-writers. Readers should read whatever they want, whether that’s Twilight or Anna Karenina. Writers, however, can’t stay in the “just as long as they’re reading camp.” As a writer, read what’s considered the best and worst.  

2. Don’t be boring

There is a possibility that you are boring in your everyday life. It’s okay. Most people are. But whatever you do, don’t be boring in your writing. Luckily for you, your writing style does not have to mirror your personality exactly—nor should it. Despite my laid-back, conversational writing style, I’m a pretty serious (possibly even boring) person. My writing voice is my alter ego, and it offers a chance for me to push out whatever is going on my zany brain.

Boring is a harsh word to describe your writing. If it’s your vocab, spice it up. If it’s your prose, consider adding a metaphor or humorous imagery. Mix up sentence structure. Blah, blah, blah. But if you’re still struggling with this, keep writing. Learn how to tell a story. And get some life experience. Refer to our first tip. You probably won’t be as boring once you have plenty of experiences and opinions on all those books and magazines you read.

3. Flexibility

Your personal writing voice might be completely in sync with one or two publications,  a nice fit for half a dozen more and completely wrong for others. That’s a-okay. What you do need to work at with finding your voice, however, is being flexible with it. Sometimes, you’ll need to work with different tones for your voice, whether that’s lighter or darker, to get the job done.

For instance, if your hero is James Joyce and you like to use those million-dollar words in your writing, you will definitely have to dumb down your vocabulary for a simple how-to post or to write some short-form content. This doesn’t mean you can’t bring out your personality. Be funny, morose, weird, straight-forward, etc. You just need to consider what the job is and how you can bring something unique to it.

4. Experiment

Creative writing classes encourage experimentation, so I will too. Experiment with writing a little crazy. Do you like how Cormac McCarthy barely uses punctuation? Are you a fan of when people use a lot of parentheticals as asides? (This is my greatest trick as a writer.) Go a little crazy. Feel like using footnotes like David Foster Wallace? Go for it.

5. Mimic a better one

Having a strong writing voice can go a long way towards getting that personal essay published or getting a blogging job, but sometimes it may just be best to mimic a strong voice. This way, you have an infinite amount of opportunities at your fingertips. The ability to shift in and out of different writing styles and voices can lead to opportunities ghostwriting, speech writing, content writing, blogging, etc.

If you can mimic a strong voice, you will be that much more confident in owning your original voice. Also, mimic better voices. Learn how their voice is so successful by recreating it.

The most important thing to realize when you’re going through this process and scanning the tips above is that you probably already have a voice. It might not be there yet or isn’t particularly strong, but you still have a voice. Make it one worth remembering.

Speaking of memorable voices, here are some writers known for their distinctive styles actually speaking with their regular voices.

Famous Writers' Recorded Voices

By Emily E. Steck

Famous for their clear, distinctive writer's voices, here are a few interviews and recorded voices of some of the famous writers of the 20th century.

  • Ernest Heminway

    By Emily E. Steck

    It's fitting that this recording of Hemingway has him stumble and mumble over his clean prose, which was a staple of 20th century writing style. 

  • Raymond Chandler & Ian Fleming

    By Emily E. Steck

    James Bond author Ian Fleming interviewed Raymond Chandler for the BBC in London. The posh sounding one is Fleming. The mildly drunk sounding American is Chandler.

  • Sylvia Plath

    By Emily E. Steck

    The American poet and novelist has a surprisingly passionate, light voice with a mid-20th century Bostonian accent. 

  • Langston Hughes

    By Emily E. Steck

    African-American poet Langston Hughes recites his poem, "The Weary Blues" (1925) to jazz accompaniment. 

  • Samuel Beckett

    By Emily E. Steck

    The Irish avant-garde playwright and novelist wrote many of his works in French first, recites one of his plays here.

  • Vladimir Nabokov

    By Emily E. Steck

    Vladimir Nabokov is famous for mastering the written word in both English and Russian. Known for his complex plots and clever wordplay, he speaks here about his most acclaimed novel, [Lolita.](

  • Virginia Woolf

    By Emily E. Steck

    A 20th century modernist known for her experimentation with stream of consciousness, she speaks here in a part of a BBC radio broadcast in 1937, the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf's voice.

Image: Beverly/Flickr

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