I opened the document eagerly, excited to see the progress my client had made. She had read a book about how to write a book proposal and had dutifully followed its dictates.
But when I read the proposal, I was dismayed. The ‘about the author’ section was particularly awful. It wasn’t that it was poorly written – it was just drafted in someone else’s voice.
My client had followed the advice to write about herself in the third person. But that didn’t work for her book, which was a very personal story.
Don’t take advice – listen instead
In our efforts to find our elusive writing voice, we often seek advice to make it easier. Sometimes being told how to write isn’t as helpful as being taught how to listen.
As a professional listener, I’m always attuned to what’s being said and how. When you tune in, you can hear your voice become clear. Soon, you’ll be empowered to write captivating blog posts, authentic articles, and amazing books – resonating with your authentic voice.
Listening practices for artists of all kinds
These suggestions apply to artists in all media; rather than jumble the article with multiple examples, I invite you to play with these ways to listen for your authentic voice.
- Get moving. Authentic rhythms can lead us to our voice. Our bodies are completely unique, and our voice is part of that originality. Try dancing, playing, yoga, running, any kind of movement. Play with opening up your vocal chords while moving – see what sounds emerge and what they reveal.
- Hearken back to hometown vernacular. What colloquial expressions do you recall from your youth? Rice seemed to play a role in my childhood narrative. Because my father wouldn’t swear, he’d substitute ‘Jesus Christ!’ with ‘Cheese and rice!’ Expressions from my Louisiana roots crept into my speech, my favorite being ‘Like white on rice.’ (Indicating, ‘I’m all over that.’)
- Get intimate. Think of a dear friend with whom you feel completely comfortable. With this friend, you lose any self-consciousness about how you speak. Next time you hang out, pay attention to common expressions or shortcuts you use.
- Yuck it up. Writing humor can be difficult, especially when you’re self-conscious. Your whimsy or sardonic humor is absolutely unique to you. Humor can’t be forced, but when something funny strikes you, put it down on paper. Notice what makes you laugh and what you say that makes others laugh.
- Love language. Keep a list of your favorite words. What you love can often lead you to recognizing and appreciating your identity and your voice. Notice what patterns appear on your list.
- Shed the suit. When we sit down to write, we often don a formal tone. It’s a ‘stand and deliver’ moment that stifles our unique voice. Get casual to tap your real voice – you may even discover that your voice rings with formality!
- Practice and play. Any authentic expression requires a lot of practice. Waiting in the wings until you find your voice won’t bring it out; playing and exploring will. Write a full page of nonsense. Draft insult poems, list poems, rap poems – anything that frees you up.
- Speak in tongues. If you speak or even have studied a foreign language, consider some of the vocabulary or grammatical constructs you may have borrowed from that language. Play with them to see what’s part of your regular speech.
- Explore with free writing. Set a timer and write without stopping on a given topic for ten to fifteen minutes. A useful prompt to get you started is ‘What I really want to say’. This method has helped hundreds of my clients and students access their authentic voice.
- Groove with the music. What songs make you sway and groove? What words would you use to describe your musical taste? Do any of those words apply to your voice? Check out this list from Pandora to describe an artist’s style (I like ‘extensive vamping’!):
- a subtle use of vocal harmony
- mild rhythmic syncopation
- a vocal-centric aesthetic
- extensive vamping
- minor key tonality
- a dynamic female vocalist
- subtle use of acoustic piano
11. Be incorrect. Unique voice isn’t found in perfect usage and diction. Your mistakes can be part of your charm. For instance, I often cut off the end of my words, and I use ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’. Of course that’s not proper usage, but that’s my true voice. Chris Guillebeau enunciates the ends of his words very clearly – that’s his voice. If I started speaking like that, it would ring false. Don’t try to imitate someone else or put yourself into a ‘grammatical straightjacket’.
12. Listen to yourself. Record yourself reading a piece you’ve written or speak your thoughts into a recorder. Listen, then take note of anything that strikes you. Hearing yourself will allow you to recognize your rhythms and verbal tics.
13. Release your passion. Voice often emerges when we’re addressing something we’re truly committed to and fired up about. Identify and engage with what ignites you, and your voice won’t be far away.
How do you know your voice?
How do you know when you’ve found your voice? Chances are it’s not as far away as you think. Yet it’s one of those difficult to define elements that we can chase for years.
For me, when I am writing from my voice, I hear it in my head, I feel it in the pace of my fingers, I express it in the sway of my body. I also feel nervous about putting it out there. When I fear what others think about my writing, I know I’ve tapped into something that’s true to me. The articles I write from that place are the ones my readers resonate with the most.
My client’s book is cruising along. It took some starts and stops, but now she’s writing from her voice, about her experience, in a way that will transform others. The work has become easier, she feels more empowered, and the writing is much better.
What helps you listen to your voice? Which of these methods will you experiment with to get closer to your authentic expression?