Based on the questions I hear wherever I speak, it’s clear that beginning writers agonize as much over these issues as anything else.
Trust me, while it’s crucial you find your unique writing voice so you can set a distinctive tone, it really isn’t all that complicated.
You wouldn’t be able to tell that from the plethora of blogs, articles, and books on the subject. Google “unique writing voice” and “tone in writing” and you’ll spend the rest of your day and night immersed in opinions.
I don’t want to be just another, um, voice among all the others, so let me make it extremely simple.
I’ll do it by asking you to use your memory and your imagination—and also by sharing an embarrassing story I hope will make it stick.
3 Simple Steps to Finding Your Unique Writing Voice
When determining what your tone in writing should sound like on the page, consider:
- The coolest thing that ever happened to you
- The most important person you told about it
- What you sounded like
That’s as complicated as it needs to be.
Here’s how it works and how my story plays into this.
- The highlight of my life was realizing that I had met the woman who would become my wife.
- I could not wait to tell my best friend, who happened to work at an all-night gas station.
- I sounded smitten, as interested in my story as anything I had ever said before.
I drove nearly three hours in the wee hours of the morning after leaving my beloved, pulled into the gas station, eyes alight, and made my friend drop everything else and sit before me to give me his full attention.
I sat atop a 55-gallon oil drum, then told him all about Dianna, and I mean everything. What she looked like, sounded like, how she acted, how much I loved her, that he would be in the wedding—
“Wedding?” he said. “Does she know how you feel?”
“She will soon enough,” I said, and I plunged on. For two hours I rhapsodized about a woman with whom I had spent not much more time than that. (We have been married since 1971.)
The embarrassing part? I was wholly unaware, until I climbed down from that drum, that I had been sitting the whole time in a quarter inch of motor oil. It had soaked through my pants and down my legs. (It felt pretty good actually.)
When I arrived home at dawn, my mother took one look at me and said, “You’re in love.”
Okay, my voice in that anecdote is obvious. I was smitten and understandably obnoxious.
My tone? That’s a different matter. For this purpose I chose wry and, I hope, funny. But I could have chosen virtually the same voice with an entirely different tone.
For instance, if I had begun, “Listen, if you’re not still as enamored with your spouse — even after decades of marriage — as you were when you met, something could be wrong with your relationship,” my anecdote might still raise a smile.
But just as you had to hide a giggle when a coach or teacher unintentionally spit at you while exhorting you about something, you might not laugh at my story as you did with the original tone.
To my point:
You have an idea for a novel or a nonfiction book. How do you go about telling it, writing it? What should your writing voice sound like?
Imagine sitting your best friend down and demanding their full attention, insisting, “Listen, have I got something to tell you…”
What comes next is your writing voice. It should sound like you at your most engaged.
Writing first-person from the standpoint of your protagonist? Imagine them, sitting with their best friend, demanding their full attention…
If you don’t know your protagonist well enough to do that yet, you have more work to do.
BONUS: I’ve created a guide to help get you started on this exercise. For best results, print this document and fill it out by hand. You can click here or on the image below to download it for free:
What have you discovered about your tone in writing? Tell me in the comments below.