Monday, March 17, 2014

Finding Your Own Unique Voice

Finding Your Own Unique Voice

Guest Post From: Nikolas Baron

Attending conferences, reading about writing, and perusing writer’s market guides, writers often run across advice to “develop a unique voice”. It is some of the most valuable, and frustrating, advice a writer can receive. In addition to doing a thorough spelling and grammar check, revising and editing for clarity, continuity, characterization, and a solid plot, writers are told that they must have a “fresh voice”. What do editors mean by “voice”?

One mistake that many writers make is confusing voice with style. A style of writing refers to the way the material is presented. Sentence length, word choice, and structure of the writing all contribute to style. You can copy another writer’s style with impunity, but your voice must be your own, unique mode of expression that no one else shares. Your voice must stand out from the crowd, if your work is to be noticed. It is well understood that developing one’s voice is critical to success as a writer, but what is voice, exactly?

The precise definition of voice is difficult to pin down. Voice is a combination of style, and the unique perspective each writer brings to their work. Finding one’s voice is really a matter of finding the deeper motivation and purpose for writing, and allowing the depths of honesty to flow out onto the page. Finding a unique voice means writing not what you know, but rather what you are passionate about. Diction, sentence structure, and the choice of literary devices, as well as the tone of the piece, come together to determine voice.

Discovering and developing one’s own unique voice is a process that takes place over the course of learning craft and developing one’s writing experience and ability. To help hasten the process, try writing in a journal or blog, or even free writing. When unfettered from the rules and regulations of writing for an audience, the voice is freed.

Piers Anthony is a British writer who is well known for incorporating puns and word play into his fantasy stories. Milkweed pods, in his books, replace cows as a source of refreshing nourishment. Sugar sand is sweet, and ant lions are a dangerous hybrid of insect and large feline. Tolkien, by contrast, takes a far more serious and poetic approach to creating an equally elaborate fantasy world, relying on descriptive passages and elegant imagery to draw the reader in to Middle Earth. When reading, it’s easy to tell the two authors apart, because each has a unique voice.

Finding one’s own voice is a lifelong endeavor for most writers. Writing well is a matter of learning the craft, of studying grammar, spelling, and word choice. Studying craft is important, but in the pursuit of effective writing, many writers allow their voice to be buried in a sea of advice. By avoiding certain types of words, like adverbs, or certain types of sentence structure, like dangling participles, a writer limits himself or herself, fencing them in. Learning the rules is important. Without the rules of good writing, clear expression is impossible. Once the rules are learned, they can be effectively bent and broken.

William Faulkner didn’t seem to understand the concept of a run-on sentence. His sentences are sometimes several paragraphs long. Yet, his prose is known as iconic American literature, and his books have informed a generation of writers.  Mark Twain was perfectly capable of using correct grammar, yet his most effective characterization was created using broken dialect. Each word he laid onto the page was specifically chosen for its impact and power. He once said; “The difference in the right word and the almost-right word, is the difference between the lightening, and the lightening bug.”

Finding one’s voice is a matter of deciding upon the type of personality to bring to one’s work, and the tone that best fits the audience, and purpose of the writing. Word choice and sentence structure are less formal and more simplistic, for example, when writing for children, than writing for a professional journal. The personality projected when writing for a boss will be different from what is expressed when writing a love letter. Voice is as much a matter of tone as of style. Once a writer finds their unique voice, they will find success.



Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s’ novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.