Is your writing voice distinct? Would we know it’s you even if we didn’t see your name on it, based just on how it sounds? In this post I’m going to share with you everything I know about developing and using your writing voice.
A million blogs out there will give you tips on all those magic bullet items everyone seems to want: how to get more traffic, how to measure this and that, how to do SEO and more.
Nothing wrong with that.
A million more blogs are following all that advice and still not getting anywhere.
Maybe one of them is yours.
Sharing Valuable Information is Not Enough
These are murky waters. “Value” is highly subjective. Even so, it’s not enough. The best blogs out there offer more than just useful information.
They have a distinctive way of presenting that information. There are two main ways in which they stand out: voice and design. We can talk about design in a later post; for now I want to talk to you about voice.
Brace yourself, because this is where all the terrible, uncomfortable writing advice you’ve ever received is coming home to roost—where it promptly gets shot in the head point-blank. The best way to bolster your voice is a combination of forgetting what you think you’re supposed to be doing… and doing some of the most old-school things imaginable when you write for your blog. But before we get into that, we have to understand what we’re dealing with, here.
What is Voice?
Voice in writing is how your words “sound” in readers’ heads when they read your text. Think of it as the voice they hear in their heads as they read, which they attribute with you, the author. Much of what we get taught about writing comes from the bad ol’ days of our education and having to write papers for school. Much of that is worth keeping, believe it or not: have a thesis statement, support your main points, write in the active rather than passive voice and other gems.
But school also tended to want a certain academic quality to the writing. Wanted it drained of personality and quirks. Favored economy over personality (not that the two are mutually exclusive).
So, if voice is how you sound when read, what goes into that?
- Word choice
- Expressions you favor
- Sense of humor
- A lack of self-censorship
Write Like You Speak: Word Choice (and Rule-Breaking)
One of the best ways to get to your voice is to try and write like how you speak. There are a few exercises and tips for making this easier;
- Pretend you’re conversing with a close friend at a bar or coffeeshop and write exactly what you would say
- Record what you want to say, play it back and transcribe yourself (or use speech recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking)
- Write in a stream-of-consciousness style, where you must keep writing and not stop for at least ten minutes
Rule-breaking is a big part of word choice. Why? Because often the way we naturally want to do things breaks the rules.
Here’s my take on this: If you know what the rules are and you break them on purpose for effect, it’s cool. If you don’t know what the rules are and you’re breaking them because you don’t know what you’re doing, well that’s just ignorant. Not cool.
Look, if blogging is gonna be a big part of your marketing, you’re essentially writing. Writing has rules. You should know them so that whether or not you’re following them, it’s for a good reason.
Self-Awareness: Notice What You’re Saying
The more you write, the more you’ll notice yourself using certain words and phrases. What’s really enlightening is having your voice transcribed either manually or via software. Seeing those words on the page can be almost as weird as the very first time you ever heard your own recorded voice as others hear it. You may not react well to it. You might think you sound stupid or wonder why anyone would want to listen to that.
Don’t worry about that for now, because we’re not done, yet.
The important thing is to be aware of how you really talk, because it’s through self-awareness you can take control of your voice.
Do What Comes Naturally (But Not Too Much): Expressions You Favor
When you talk to people, you probably say lots of “ums” and “you knows” and such. When I say you should write how you speak, I don’t mean this sort of thing should be included (and if you think this is difficult, try learning to speak without them in order to create podcasts or videos!).
You also may repeat certain expressions. Pay attention to these because there are two possibilities here:
- Certain expressions are part of your “signature” and it’s how we know it’s you. For example, I like to begin sentences with conjunctions and write alternately in sentence fragments and long sentences. I like to say the word “actually.”
- Some expressions or words you will say too frequently and you need to curb that. Once I took a good look at what I was writing and found I said the word “actually” a ridiculous number of times.
- Some people like to ask questions of the reader as they write (whether they answer them or not is another matter altogether).
- Some people like to use texting/IM shorthands and emoticons when they write, LOL WTF.
- Some people like to swear.
- Some people like to use a lot of italics or bold or even CAPSLOCK.
- Some people favor bullets lists (as you can see, I’m one of ‘em).
- Some people favor parenthetical expressions (as you can see…).
- Some people use colloquial spellings or expressions like “ain’t”, “gonna” and so forth.
- Some people are natural storytellers, others are natural teachers
A Sense of Humor (Yeah, I know, This isn’t Funny at All)
This is a tough one. I really appreciate writing with a good sense of humor. The problem for me personally is that I’m not consistent enough with it and most of the time, I’m much more earnest than humorous. Some people are just plain awesome at it (and they will also say it’s not easy).
Again, back to the “what comes naturally” thing: if the funneh just slips out as you write and you’re not trying too hard, you’re probably fine. But if you look at what you wrote and think “Oh shit, I forgot to be funny,” well, you probably shouldn’t worry about it. Humor is not something you can easily sprinkle into your posts after the fact and expect it to sound natural or come out okay.
A note on audience and taste: One of the more interesting things about online content is that it’s really easy to filter out what you don’t want to see. You can find what you do want to see with a quick search. This means you’re going to attract a certain audience. People who don’t like your sense of humor won’t stick around to read your blog, and those that do, will.
Up to a point.
I’m not gonna tell you how to be or get all “political correctness” on your ass.
If you get comments that say you’re homophobic and/or racist, sexist or some other word with “ist” on the end of it, you might want to rethink what you’re doing. If your goal is to attract an audience who thinks just like you do, then brace yourself for the hate mail and go for it. But if your goal is to help a group of people about a topic instead of your pushing your personal beliefs through your jokes, then maybe you don’t need to worry about trying to be funny.
A Lack of Self-Censorship, the Biggest Voice-Killer of All
Based on the conversations I’ve had with my blog consulting clients over the years, the biggest reason why people don’t develop their voice is because they’re actively suppressing it!
They write something and their inner censor appears and starts ripping into them: You can’t say that! That doesn’t sound like serious writing! People will laugh at you. People will think you’re WEIRD.
So let me put this to you bluntly: You can’t be onstage without being in the spotlight, and nobody came to your show to be bored to death.
There’s way too much happy-talk on the web about “authenticity” and conversation marketing and whatever other buzzwordy thing.
You might do well to remember this: you’re putting on a show. You’re giving a performance.
That doesn’t mean you have to be fake. It means you have to give people a reason to stay… and come back for more.
And voice is a big part of that.
I feel it’s also worth saying that self-censorship is not the same as editing for clarity or that being fast, loose and sloppy is the same thing as a lack of self-censorship. Perhaps in order to circumvent your inner censor you need to write fast and furiously in a first draft. That’s cool, but don’t hit publish immediately. Let it stew for a while and go back and edit it later to improve it. Editing is not censorship. Editing improves your writing. Censorship guts it and silences your voice.
How to Know You’re Doing it Right
I get guest post submissions all the time. I turn down most of them (don’t let that stop you, though, especially after reading this post).
You know why?
Because I can’t tell who wrote them.
Let me explain what I mean: if someone else’s name were on the post as author, it wouldn’t matter. Because there was nothing unique about its voice. It’s the same mindless inoffensive pabulum already drowning the internet. If I can take your post and swap out author names and nobody can tell the difference, you have no voice. And your bland little post-wrapped-around a backlink for SEO juice doesn’t belong on Remarkablogger.
My goal is that you would recognize a post by me because of its voice, even if you didn’t see my name on it.
Can you say the same for your writing? If so… you have found your voice. If not, you’ve got some work to do.
Image by AlishaV