How can I find my writing voice?

February 8, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I’ve had several questions recently on finding one’s voice… so I turned to good buddy Les Edgerton, author of the brilliant ebook Finding Your Voice…

Writers’ Isolation

I’ll wager that most of you reading this do something else to earn your daily bread. Which means that for most of your waking hours, you’re among non-writers. That’s probably true even if you’re self-employed or stay at home with those small citizens roaming around the living room who bear your last name and a smaller version of your nose. If your main source of social contact happens to be your significant other, he or she probably isn’t a writer either.

Further, most of the people you work in the office or on the assembly line with—or break bread at noon with—or meet in the coffee shop after work with—more than likely aren’t writers—chances are they probably aren’t readers either. Oh, sure, casual readers, but not readers to the depth you’re a reader.

What does this mean to you as a writer?

Only this—it’s easy to begin to think of your own potential readership as being comprised of the same kinds of folks you see at work or at play or bearing a strong resemblance to the family next door. Non-writers and nonreaders or casual readers, mostly. Unless you lease a rent-controlled co-op in the Simon & Schuster building.

And why wouldn’t you see your audience that way? After a while, it’s only natural to imagine most people in the country itself are pretty much like the folks you see every day.

Well, most folks are . . . but those aren’t your readers, usually.

Your reader is yourself.

Write This Down!

I’ll repeat: Your reader is yourself.

Or someone much like yourself.

Someone who shares your interests, knows just about the same things as you do, has close to the same intelligence, has a reading background and history similar to what you’ve had.

You may never meet him or her.

What I’m getting at is that your reader—at least, the sort of reader you should be writing for—isn’t personally known to you and I doubt if you have much, if any personal contact with him or her, nor are you likely to except on a book signing tour.

How does this affect your writing style?

By getting out of your own natural voice to please someone else.

The answer?

Make yourself your intended reader. By writing to you as your reader, you get closer than at any other time to getting your real voice on the page. You write naturally.
You don’t, for instance, include subtle “explanations” in your prose when you write to yourself.

What is somewhat derogatorily referred to by some as “dumbing down the prose.” This is when you attempt to make what you’re writing crystal-clear for a readership you may assume needs that info… because they’re not you. We likely do this kind of thing because we make the people we see every day our assumed audience.

Which means we begin to “write down” for that imagined audience. Mostly by providing “explanations” in a variety of ways to help out the imagined reader. A noble sentiment, but one that’s detrimental to both your voice and to the overall quality of your work.
This gets us out of our voice because now we’re trying to “explain” things to the reader, making it easier to slip back into the beige voice. Think about it. In “real life,” if you feel you have to begin explaining something in the middle of a story—a term, some background you think necessary for the listener to understand the story—you slip out of that “natural” story-telling mode and tend to revert to a more formal diction. We might call it our “dictionary voice.” Once you begin to think you have to explain something in your prose, the same thing happens.

It’s just a mistake to do so in writing.

Think about it. How many times have you “simpled down” the story or article you’re writing, chiefly because your experience “tells” you that you’ll have to in order for others to “get it?”
More than once, I bet. I’m guilty of doing so. Not so much anymore, but at one time . . .

If you have, then you haven’t been writing for your real reader. You’ve been writing for your acquaintances. Sorry, chum. That’s what today’s teenager might call, “your bad.”

Examples

When you write for a reader like yourself—your twin—you begin writing for a reader who doesn’t have to have much explained to him. Doesn’t require backstory/setup or doesn’t need to be fed information via characters’ dialogue. After all, your reader knows the same things you do and you get to “talk” to him or her in the same kind of shorthand you do when you think to yourself or talk to an old, close friend or relative.

In your voice.

Let me give you an example of how writing for someone other than a reader like yourself can affect your writing style when you’re writing.
This is from Lucy Grealy’s sobering memoir, Autobiography of a Face, an account of her overcoming her facial disfigurement caused by childhood cancer. It starts out like this:

My friend Stephen and I used to do pony parties together. The festivities took place on the well-tended lawns of the vast suburban communities that had sprung up around Diamond D Stables in the rural acres of Rockland County. Mrs. Daniels, the owner of Diamond D, took advantage of the opportunity and readily dispatched a couple of ponies for birthday parties. In the early years Mrs. Daniels used to attend the parties with us, something Stephen and I dreaded. She fancied herself a sort of Mrs. Roy Rogers and dressed in embarrassing accordance: fringed shirts, oversized belt buckles, ramshackle hats.

Okay. Here’s the deal. Grealy wrote this for a reader she obviously imagined having much the same background and knowledge she possessed. How do I know that? That’s easy. From the sentence that begins: She fancied herself a sort of Mrs. Roy Rogers. She doesn’t explain who “Mrs. Roy Rogers” is, although I know for a fact there are quite a few people, under, say, the age of thirty-nine or so who don’t have a clue who she’s referring to.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the name, “Mrs. Roy Rogers,” she was the late Dale Evans, wife of the oater and TV star back in the forties and fifties. An American pop culture icon, in her day.

knew who Mrs. Roy Rogers was—after all, I’ve been around since God was a little boy—but I’m pretty sure many of Grealy’s readers didn’t have the slightest intimation to whom she was referring.

Did she stop to provide an explanation?
No ma’am! No sir! She assumed a reader like herself. For those “in the know” the way Grealy presented her name—“Mrs. Roy Rogers” instead of “Dale Evans”—was humorous. There’s a lot going on here. Referring to her as “Mrs. Roy Rogers” instead of Dale Evans requires the reader to really be aware of who she was, as well as make a subtle statement about American society at the time. Women then were largely considered second bananas to their husbands and she’s making a clever statement here. Also, by using Dale Evans as Mrs. Daniels’ role model, she’s showing the reader what era the scene took place in. A lesser writer would have furnished the year or decade, but Grealy is a superb writer who knows that the best writing leaves some work for the reader to do. She gives the “clue” to all this—status of women, the year of the scene— via the reference and this is what good writing is all about. Allowing the reader the delight of figuring stuff out for herself.

If Grealy had been trying to overexplain for a reader, she might have written a different sentence. Something like, She fancied herself a sort of Dale Evansthe one-time famous wife of Roy Rogers, the famous “Singing Cowboy” movie and TV star of the ’50′sand dressed in embarrassing accordance with that former pop icon: fringed shirts, oversized belt buckles, ramshackle hats.

But Grealy wrote the book for a person like herself, a reader who knows as well as she does who Mrs. Roy Rogers was and also her image in our culture at one time.
It’s just plain exciting to come upon a book and an author like this. One who doesn’t overexplain to her reader and who remains fully within her own voice by refusing to do so.

All you have to do is follow Grealy’s example and the readers of your work will react the same way upon encountering your writing. Just assume they’ll get it.

Will some of the readers of Grealy’s memoir be lost when they encounter the reference to Mrs. Roy Rogers? Be totally clueless as to who she’s talking about?

Without a doubt.

Should she care?

Nope.

Why?

Because … a writer can’t be everything to everyone. However . . . I’ll bet they become her readers. As will those who read your prose become yours, even if they don’t understand all the references. Why? Because you’ve given them the ultimate compliment a writer can give to a reader.
You’ve told them you think they’re pretty smart.

Know anyone who can resist that?

Les Edgerton, author of Finding Your Voice

Note: Finding Your Voice is available at Amazon, B&N.com, and the iBookstore

Posted in Deep Thoughts, The Writing Craft

  • Karen Morris

    Great advice as always, Les. Thank you!

  • Rajdeep Paulus

    Very cool. Thanks for this post, Chip. :) -Raj

    • chipmacgregor

      You bet, Raj. Glad you liked it. Les is brilliant.

  • Cheryl Russell

    Great explanation. I also nerd to buy that book. :)

    • Cheryl

      *need. Yeesh.

      • chipmacgregor

        Ha! I love that, Cheryl. I think I nerd to buy that book as well!

    • Cherry Odelberg

      Great word choice. You have coined a new phrase.

  • maegan beaumont

    Thanks for such an informative post, Chip! This is a fantastic book by a fantastic writer! Of all the craft books I own (and I own many…) Les’ are the only ones that have ever made sense to me.

    • chipmacgregor

      Nice to see someone say that, Maegan. I think FINDING YOUR VOICE is a brilliant work.

  • Les Edgerton

    Thanks for having me on, Chip! And, thanks everybody for your comments–I appreciate them very much!

    • chipmacgregor

      Really glad you came on the site, Les.

  • Terri Thompson

    I’ve read dozens of writing books and even more articles about writing and I’ve never heard this. I think this may be the most freeing piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard. Thank you.

    • Cherry Odelberg

      You feel it too :)

    • chipmacgregor

      Glad you feel that way, Terri. Check out Les’ book on Amazon.

      • Terri Thompson

        I will! Thank you for sharing his blog with us.

  • http://twitter.com/PaulDBrazill PaulDBrazill

    Smashing post. Simone The Beaver said that she wrote for herself and strangers, and she probably meant strangers like her.

    • chipmacgregor

      Good to see your name pop up here, Paul. (For those who don’t know, Paul is a very well-respected writer of noir fiction.) Glad yo liked the post.

  • http://twitter.com/ConnieAlmony Connie Almony

    Very helpful post.

    • chipmacgregor

      Glad you liked it, Connie.

  • Susan Faw

    Very helpful, Les, I had been asking myself that very question! Puzzling over how to not slip into wanting to dumb down my prose, so that Mr/Ms Average would “get it.”

  • Mel Lawrenz

    This is a really helpful insight. Makes sense that dumbing down makes the writing dull. Also, is condescending to the reader. Its not a bad thing when readers have to look something up once in a while.

    • chipmacgregor

      Amen! I’ve long wondered why people act as though having to look up a word now and then was a BAD thing, Mel. Thanks.

  • Cherry Odelberg

    Oh. Thank you. I need this book. Did I say thank you?
    Oater: now, that’s a descriptive word. Though I have delivered a scoop of oats to a favorite steed on several frosty mornings, I am grateful for my trusty dictionary.

    • chipmacgregor

      You can get it, Cherry. I think it’s only $4.99 at Amazon and B&N.com.

  • Donna Rice

    What a great post – thank you!

    • chipmacgregor

      You’re welcome, Donna. Les is great.

  • sally apokedak

    Great advice. Thanks.

    I’ve seen some really fine writers ruin their work by trying to please everyone in the crit group. My take has been that you should find the one or two in the group who “get” it and you give their crits more weight than the others. If you constantly try to change your work so the clueless one gets it, you’re going to lose your voice.

    You are so right: You can’t be everything to everyone and you shouldn’t try.

    • http://twitter.com/vikingwritergal Heather Day Gilbert

      I agree with you, Sally. Find that person who gets your writing and represents your target audience. And this whole post seems to back up that saying, “Write what you want to read.”

      I remember when I wrote for newspapers, I learned that you’re writing for a fifth-grade reading level audience. Not so in fiction writing. I love interjecting allusions to things peeps in my target demographic would recognize–allusions to shows like “MacGyver.” Know your audience, know yourself as a writer.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Sally. Good words.

  • Jo Huddleston

    Chip, thanks for bringing Les’s remarks about voice to your blog. I’ve read many places that I should find my voice–till I read this post I’d never found it. Now I have.

    • chipmacgregor

      That’s great to read, Jo. Thanks for this — glad you enjoyed Les’ post.

  • Mindy Peltier

    I’ve never heard “your reader is yourself.” It makes so much sense and I feel like I was let in on a very wonderful secret. I was also impacted by four words, “beige voice” and “dictionary voice.” Great post. Thank you very much!

    • chipmacgregor

      You’re welcome! And yes — isn’t that a good thought that “your reader is yourself”?

  • Judith Robl

    Thank you! This is a more succinct and clarifying than “write the book you want to read.” Kicks it up a notch. And as a bonus, it lets me know that I’m on the right track with a novel that’s been rattling in my brain forever.

    • chipmacgregor

      You’re right — appreciate you coming onto the blog to comment, Judith.

  • Teresa

    Liberating! I always wanted life to be this way.

  • Julie Surface Johnson

    I’ve never heard voice explained in this way before. Love it!

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah, Les has a way of making complex things pretty simple and workable, Julie. Glad you liked it.

  • Lee Thompson

    Great post. Les is such a wise cracker. I sometimes fight dumbing things down for people, almost feeling like I have to, but in the end, I want the reader to have to invest themselves and bring their biases and understandings to the work. Hope to see you at Bouchercon, Les! Lee

    • chipmacgregor

      Glad you liked it, Lee. (And make sure to wish Les a happy birthday.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Reynolds/100001730976071 Steve Reynolds

    Chip, that’s one of the most fascinating insights on voice that I’ve ever read. I was just reflecting on my “voice” today and thinking to myself ….Steve, there is no way that anybody is ever going to sign you to a book contract with a writing voice that sounds like you never finished third grade…but the thing is some people get it. In fact, some people love it. No, the grammar snobs are going to hate me. They probably already do. I will probably NEVER be the critics choice. They will most likely hate me, may even burn my books. But, my books will be entertaining and they will bring joy to people and maybe even bring a few to back to the Lord or The Bible…and I reckon that there is worth gittin’ slammed by a few highfalutin critics ;-)

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah, I always find Les has thoughts on writing that make me pause and reflect, Steve. Good stuff here. Appreciate your comment.

  • http://twitter.com/soulsupply Soul Supply

    Not sure how else to respond except hit ‘the BIG thumbs up button’ .. where is it Chip?

    • chipmacgregor

      Consider thumbs raised, Soul Supply. Thanks for that.

  • Keri Wyatt Kent

    Wonderful advice. Thanks, Les!

    • chipmacgregor

      Glad you liked it, Keri.

  • http://raiseyoureyes.dreamhosters.com/ Connie@raise your eyes

    This makes so much sense! The kind of writing I love to read best is that which mentions phrases or names yet doesn’t “dumb down” by explaining to me. If there are any I don’t know, then I love the learning curve of researching them. Often that takes my path to other writings.

    • chipmacgregor

      Les has a great way of sharing significant writing truth, Connie. Glad you liked it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/J0shuaGraham Joshua Graham

    As Sol Stein says in Stein on Writing: Resist the urge to explain.

  • J.E.

    This is the best post I’ve read on this subject thus far. A huge thank you. I”m off to buy the book now. Great advice. Now I understand.

  • http://twitter.com/haleematthews Halee Matthews

    I. Love. This. I first decided to try my hand at fiction because I wanted to write something I would enjoy reading. Who knew I already had a head-start on finding my voice? And dear God, save me from dumbed-down prose. This girl’s got a brain. If an author treats me like an idiot, I’m not likely to ever read another book from them. So I always try to be mindful of that as I write. Great advice!

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