What sets you apart from the fellow writer at Starbucks who is also nursing a cup of joe for six hours in the name of free wi-fi?
Your hustle, industry connections, bylines in fancy places, or superior Moleskine notebook, you might think. Sure, all those things factor into the grand scheme of the #writinglife, but there’s one important piece that you might forget to include: your voice.
Like DNA, your writing voice makes the words you’ve click-clacked out at two in the morning or scribbled into a notebook on a bumpy bus ride connect specifically to you. With any luck, it resonates with your desired audience, brings them to your website, or makes them start buying your books, and BAM! — you become a thought leader, successful businesswoman, or published author.
Voice is something professional writers and entrepreneurs care deeply about getting right; it cements their relationship with readers or followers and drives success.
As with any challenge or task encountered these days, the internet offers many a dubious solution. In the case of finding your writing voice, there are quick-hit, set-it-and-forget-it, “Understand Your X Factor” solutions and courses aplenty, ready for purchase, all claiming to help you get to the bottom of this amorphous topic … for good.
I hate to paint with a broad brush (only fine tips for me, please), but many of these guru-backed claims grossly overgeneralize and ultimately miss the point.
Finding your voice is less about hacks, shortcuts, or one-time box checks, and much more about taking time to understand the ever-evolving, complex, nuanced, messy inner self that powers the words you write.
What turns up on the page is born within us — we write from the inside out.
Our writing voices are not separate entities from our inner selves. There is no little person on our shoulder whispering prose in our ear (could you imagine?!?!).
Understanding those forces behind your writing voice should start on the inside.
Enter, psychology. By looking deeper within ourselves to identify natural inclinations and tendencies, we can start to better understand how our way of thinking affects our writing.
A well-recognized personality classifier like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a great jumping-off point. By taking this test (or one like it), you can find elements of your personality that comprise the bigger picture of your voice.
Read over your personality description carefully for clues about yourself.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of people in your personality type? What are they known for being good at? What is a challenge for them? What kinds of jobs do they normally wind up in? How do people in your personality type interact socially?
From there, you can start making connections between you and your writing style.
If you’re a naturally outspoken and excitable person, your writing voice might be very active, punchy, and strong. If you crack a lot of jokes in your social circles, those will probably come through when you write, too. If you are frequently anxious or depressed, those moods will sneak into your words, intentionally or not.
Passionate activists probably write very differently than calculating logic-lovers. Shy folks and lives of the party might put pen to paper in distinct ways. Straight shooters likely communicate differently than gossip queens.
Of course, no one person is a 100 percent reflection of their personality type or falls in line exactly with a label, but broadly speaking, your personality could be leading your writing voice in a certain direction without you even realizing it.
Take it one step further and read pieces written by others in your personality type to determine common themes or patterns.
Compare them with your own work. Do you recognize similarities in what you’re reading?
There’s a reason why the adage “write what you know” resonates with so many people — it’s not just the “what” you know, but also how you react and relate to the world. It is much more natural to write in a way that fits with our personality type or springs from our personal interests and experiences.
I’m not suggesting that we nest so deeply into our zones of genius that we only ever write what and how we know best, though.
Instead, let’s embrace a much more complicated picture that is always subject to change.
While personality tests are a good starting place, don’t let them fool you into thinking that voice exploration is a one-and-done deal. Better understanding your personality is just the beginning of the story. Consider the passage of time and the life experiences you accrue over the years as another piece of the puzzle.
Just as you are not the same person you were five, 10, 15, or 20 years ago, your voice also follows suit.
Even day in and day out, your voice changes. Each cup of coffee, shot of whiskey, or sleepless night affects your voice. Often unpredictable and unwieldy, some days it is sullenly silent and other days effervescently chatty.
Apologies if this inconsistency is frustrating news to you.
The ongoing (and often fickle) evolution of personality and the voice behind it is normal — but when you’re a writer trying to stake claim in some corner of the cacophony of voices known as the blogosphere (to name one loud workspace), this constant change feels like self-sabotage. Or that perhaps you might worry about becoming a writer tumbleweed, never quite finding a home in one place.
“How am I supposed to brand myself if I can never pin myself down?”, you might wonder.
But allowing for flexibility and organic growth in your writing voice can actually make you a stronger and more flexible writer, with more self-awareness to draw from.
Consider how this truth is depicted by the popular Pixar film Inside Out.
As the story attests (and affirmed by real scientific data), our personalities are not driven by one individual self who talks the talk and walks the walk (or writes the writing, as it were), but a conglomeration of different selves that coalesce to form our personalities.
Our inner selves are then influenced by our life experiences and how we react to them on a daily basis, and over time form patterns and norms.
We should treat our own writing voices with the same understanding and nuance. Perhaps we have joyful writing selves, angry ones, jealous ones. Over time, these inner selves grow and shrink with intensity, or perhaps even disappear altogether.
Recognizing and accepting this ongoing ebb and flow could help us reduce frustration and anger borne out of writer’s block or the ever-intimidating Blinking Cursor Monster. You’re not a writer that’s lost all inspiration and pizzazz; your voice is just tired today. Maybe it should rest.
Every time we sit down to the keyboard, we are a different person. We need to honor that complexity of our evolving inner selves before we can begin to make sense of (or even try to dictate) what they create.
If we build this ongoing effort of self-understanding into our lives, we won’t be surprised or dismayed when our voices change form or mood. We will instead understand the motivations and reasons behind these shifts, stop fighting or resisting our inner selves, and accept the constant change and everything it brings.
If this discussion feels a bit squishy and abstract, let’s examine a more concrete example of a common psychological struggle that can affect your writing voice.
I, like many other women (and men) of my generation, find myself oft plagued by imposter syndrome. If you haven’t heard of it, essentially it is a fear that you will be found out as a big fat FRAUD.
That somehow you have cheated your way into your position in life and one day … poof. It’s all going to disappear when people realize you are just a smoke and mirrors show.
How does any of that relate to voice? Well, for example, if you’ve read anything else in the Gina Edwards annals, you’ll see that my writing includes a fair amount of snark, sarcasm, cynicism, attempts at humor, and parenthetical asides.
Put on your Freudian glasses, and start analyzing.
Could all that humor be a defense mechanism coming through? Trying to compensate for my fearful inner critic that whispers to me, telling me I’m not good enough? I think so.
Because of my own personal fears and hang-ups, my writing voice does all the dirty work of making sure I don’t get hurt. On the surface, you might surmise that my self-deprecating jokes mean I’m generally insecure or lack confidence.
That isn’t true, but I do happen to be in a time of my life with lots of uncertainties.
I’m a late-twenties millennial, for Christ’s sake. Almost nothing in my life is certain or otherwise locked down. At times, I feel like I’m constantly living in a state of flux. (Can I get an “amen”?)
It seems only natural that my writing would reflect how I currently feel, especially considering how my personality type typically responds to criticism or pressure. As an INFJ, I might retreat inward and spin my wheels until I’m crippled by stress rather than vocally admit I need some help. (Your personality type likely has its M.O., too.)
How could I sit here and write from some kind of God-complex, Dr. Phil-style place of authority when I can’t even be certain that the socks I’m wearing haven’t already been worn once before? (Spoiler alert: I can’t.)
The words that spring from my fingertips today sound way different from the rambly passages of my angsty teenage journal or even the beer-fueled blog posts of carefree university yesteryear.
Does that mean that I wasn’t being myself then? Was I hiding elements of my personality? Would the real Gina Edwards please stand up?
Or was I just living something different, so my voice expressed that reality and how Gina “independent woman who don’t need no help” responded to her then circumstances? I’m inclined to think it’s that.
No one written creation is the “real you” — each one is merely a snapshot of you in a particular moment of time.
When you take into account the various stages of life, how you responded to them, and the changes that accompanied them, you will start to notice the interplay of your inner self and outer world, and what happens to your written word when the two collide.
Maybe there are times of your life where your voice shined fantastically and others where it hid behind humor, or steeped itself in sadness. Your voice might have sounded different, but it was still yours.
Regardless of where your writing voice used to be, or where you feel it is now, understanding that key relationship helps you be more empathetically introspective, making you more forgiving of yourself and ultimately bolder in the future.
It might feel like defying the norms of having an easily labeled or categorized writing style that changes over time is a detriment, but it could be your biggest asset.
If you’re running a business (especially a personality business), you may want to show the world only a certain side of your voice, fearing that deviating from people’s expectations will cause them to abandon you in droves.
But people care less about absolute consistency and more about authenticity.
Writing from a place of truth, honesty, and yes, vulnerability could be your biggest strength. Fakery gets sniffed out and rejected pretty quickly.
When you try to sound a certain way or present yourself ever-so-carefully, you miss out on the juicy, messy words that your voice is yearning to spill.
I’m not saying that you should abandon all filters and start treating the internet like your diary (there’s a reason why no one uses Xanga anymore). But being forthright about your voice’s journey, complex and erratic as it may be, can help people feel closer and more connected to your writing.
Bring readers along with you on your journey, and they’ll follow you wherever you go.
Don’t forget to bring this attitude of accepting authenticity to your past writing, either.
We often want the world to know us as we want to be seen — evolved, sophisticated, worldly, perhaps. But our past novice attempts at blogging or long-form essays shouldn’t be something we’re scoffing or snorting at, but a memory of who we once were — pieces of personalities that still somehow live within us.
You probably would think, write, or say things totally differently now — and that is okay. Uncomfortable or embarrassing as it might be, embrace your younger spirits and let them stand as glimpses of who you’ve been as a writer before, and how they’ve helped you become the writer you are today.
For me, the Gina voice that sported the emo hair and the faux philosophical sophistication used to make me cringe. But when I look at her now, I see a lonely, lost teenager trying to use her writing to make sense of the world she lived in at that moment.
Had it not been for those journal entries I penned late at night or feeble attempts at poetry in my diary, I may not have ever figured out how to be emotionally honest in my writing today.
My hairstyle is different and the bands I listen to have been replaced, but when I put fingers to keys, I’m largely doing the same thing I did at age 17 — writing to express my truth, whatever that is in the moment.
Many adults leave behind our childhood or teenage writing personalities … damning them to an eternity closed inside our old notebooks, their doodles and nonsense tucked away from the harsh world of critics that we now know as the internet.
That’s a shame.
If my 80-year-old self manages to read what I’m writing today, she’ll probably chuckle and shake her head. (Future Me, I hope your eyes are still good enough to read fine print.)
Hopefully, she doesn’t laugh because she thinks I am (Was? Were? Have been?) ridiculous, but instead because she rediscovered a part of her voice that made her into the woman she became.
One of the things I’ve always found incredible about voice is its ability to take words on a page and make them feel like you’re talking to a good friend, crawling inside their head, or otherwise interacting with them in a deeply personal way.
As professional writers and entrepreneurs, our voice often gets hijacked, and starts to feel like just another “soft skill” to pour money into and worry about.
But voice is different from those other facets of our personal and professional lives. It is a deeply intimate quality woven into the very core of who we are as people, and even more so for those of us who write and rely on our words to make a living.
By reframing our understanding of and attitude about our voice, and with a little self-exploration, patience, and acceptance, we can ultimately become more in tune with our voices and write along with them.
In that process, you may just find the writing partner you never knew you had.
Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.