Understanding Writing “Voice” (How I Teach It)
When it comes to developing a real understanding of the written word, one of the most interesting and abstract concepts is that of voice; that style of writing that’s uniquely yours.
In a real way, voice is what makes writing great. If writing were just putting words down on paper in an order that made understanding the information possible, there would be no great writing.
There’d just be lists and facts instead of art.
Voice can be tricky to pin down.
In the simplest terms, your voice “sounds” like you.
One of the most common (and meaningful) comments on my writing is, “I love reading your work. It always pulls me in. I feel like you’re talking right to me.” That’s voice.
From a high level, it’s tempting to think voice comes down to writing what you want to write about, the way you want to write it (and about it).
By virtue of that, it’s unique to you. But voice is about so much more than that. It’s about why you want to write it that way, how you came to want to write it that way, how you choose and don’t choose the words or punctuation.
One of the ways I explain it to my students is this: choice makes voice.
You have all the same puzzle pieces available to you as everyone else: the same letters, the same words, the same commas, the same information. The same language. But two people writing about the same thing wind up with two very different looking puzzles.
Ultimately, there are a number of stylistic and prescriptive tools for written communication. Your voice is your ability to use the tools to get your point across in a way that sounds like you.
But before anything else, you need the tools themselves. And you need to learn how to use them.
Writing itself has a lot of components: grammar (tense agreement, punctuation, etc); vocabulary; syntax/sentence structure; overall piece structure.
Each of this is a tool or skill. Proficiency is the first step. You need to understand these tools and develop the skills to use them effectively; they are themselves tools, but the ways in which they’re used make up the very rules of the language and the written word.
When you’ve familiarized yourself with the tools and cultivated enough skill using them, you begin to look at things a bit differently. You begin to recognize when it makes sense to bend and break these rules, and how.
This is when the most nascent iteration of your writing voice begins to emerge.
As you gain experience, you realize that some tools have multiple uses, and using them differently drastically increases your options for communicating your ideas. From there, your understanding deepens, and there’s a recognition of how making stylistic choices can dictate not just whether the information is clearly presented, but influence how it’s received.
Taken all together, those form a more cohesive version of your voice.
Neil Gaiman said, “Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story.”
We can sound like other people because we read them. We absorb their words, their choices, their styles. And that filters in, influencing us both directly and indirectly.
A writer’s voice is their entire experience of the world, made manifest and put on the page.
Every book you’ve ever read, every experience you’ve ever had, every song you’ve ever heard, every movie and tv show and play you’ve seen, every person you know, every meal you’ve eaten, every conversation, dream, fantasy, achievement, failure—everything that’s ever happened to you has, in some tiny, infinitesimal way, shaped you. Slowly, by degrees.
And all of those things come together to form your worldview, the lens through which you see all of existence—including and especially the things about which you want to write.
Your writing voice is your thoughts pushed through that lens. When you’ve honed it, what you put on paper is like a beam of light: it passes through that lens—through the sum total of your existence. When you learn to control it, you can create anything from a concentrated point that can burn a hole in a piece of wood to a rainbow splayed across the wall.
Which is why it’s so important to do things, experience things. Because experience leads to confidence, to some sense of certainty.
That’s the difference maker because your true voice is what remains when you strip the uncertainty away.
Now. That all sounds impressive and ambitious and wonderful.
But—and this is a big but…
But. Before you can do any of that, you need to have the tools. You’ve got to learn all the basics. We all did.
It’s helpful to think of this in terms of fitness.
The same way we can break fitness down into specific pursuits, like athletics, aesthetics, strength (or more specifically sport specific/Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting), writing can fit into a lot of different categories.
In any pursuit, before you jump into specialization, you’ve got to build a solid foundation. Whether you want to be a bodybuilder or a powerlifter, you have to first learn how to squat. Later on, you can experiment with variations then figure out how to apply them.
Writing is the same. You may want to write compelling sales copy. Maybe storytelling calls to you. You could be interested in learning how to write articles that entertain as they educate, or emails that lead to sales and drastically increase your income, or social media posts that make people think and take action.
Or maybe you just want to learn to communicate clearly with the people in your life when you send texts, emails, or DMs.
Those are all very different things. Whatever the case, though, you need to have the basics down.
You can learn from courses and books. You can learn from reading and analyzing an author’s style. Or you can learn directly from another writer, one skilled at both teaching and wordcraft.
While all of those are helpful, that last is the most effective. It doesn’t replace practice and experience, but a good writing mentor builds those into how they teach.
As with anything else, learning directly from someone and having them there to teach, guide, push, or correct you is also the fastest way to improve. It’s the only writing instruction that offers direct, specific feedback.
Something I find fascinating (and more than a little confusing), is how many people think they need to develop a certain baseline of skill before working with someone.
That’s like saying you need to get in shape before hiring a trainer or coach.
Obviously, I love writing. And I cannot personally wrap my head around the idea that some people don’t. Or that they don’t want to improve.
Whether you want to influence people with copy, move them with prose, teach them with exposition, you use the same tools, the same base skills. Just differently. Acquiring the tools and learning the skills sooner rather than later is all upside. Because you’re going to be improving upon them forever.
Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices at a craft in which no one ever becomes a master.”
Looking at it that way, the only thing that makes sense is to start now. Coaching always gets you there faster, that’s just fact.
This is one of the reasons I focus so heavily on writing in my business coaching group, The Wellspring Society. Learn to write well—I mean really, really well—and you’ve given yourself the ability to improve everything in your life and career by orders of magnitude.
The Society teaches a score of other things, from marketing to networking, but writing is the core of it all.
If you’re interested in improving your business through writing and storytelling or learning more about business coaching in general, apply to see if you’re a good fit for the Society.
And, if you want to work with me directly on your writing, there’s the Wellspring Writing Mentorship, in which we’d work together, one-on-one.
My writing mentorship programs are 3, 4, or 6 months long—and I guarantee you’ll learn more in that time about how to become a more effective writer and communicator than you would in five years on your own.
Being a good writer is a force multiplier for everything requiring communication. Like, you know, life.
So, I mean…if you don’t like life, just keep being bad at it, I guess.