If you are ever going to learn to write authentically in a voice that is genuine and transparent and that truly resonates with your reader, you need to figure out when you lost your voice to begin with. I was 5, and I’ve never quite recovered it.
At 5 years old, I was a little brunette running around the Blue Ridge mountains, playing in the Shenandoah River, reading my Little Golden Books, wrestling with my older brother, and proudly telling everyone I met that I was 5 years old.
On Sundays, mom and dad would drive us into town so we could all go to church. One Sunday, mom overheard me telling my Sunday School teacher that I was FAY-AHV! And I saw her jaw set, hard, while her eyes turned from grey to steel. That afternoon, when I had changed out of my Sunday best and put on my play clothes, before I ran out the door to get really dirty, she pulled me into the kitchen. And I could tell from the pressure on my arm that I was in trouble.
She planted me firm in front of her. She looked me square in the eye. And she said, “you are not FAY-AHV. You are FIVE. We might live among these people, but we will not speak like them. Do you hear me?”
And from that moment on I strove to rid myself completely of any accent –West Virginian, southern, redneck, hillbilly – whatever you want to call it. My mom put it straight into my head that those soft consonants and rolling vowels; the delicious taste of language on my tongue; the engagement of my entire mouth in that primal, oral pleasure of mother’s milk – human communication – was the sure mark of being poor, dirty, and sinful.
Even now, after studying linguistics for more than a decade, when I know all the ways that pronunciation has been used by those in power to keep themselves drowning in it, I still find myself fighting with my own tongue when I teach.
If you’re struggling as a writer to find your authentic voice, if you feel like you’re writing too stiffly, that you’re being too formal, or that you’re being frivolous and confessional and funny in ways that are strained or unnatural, go back to the moment when it all started. When did you lose your voice?
I work with a lot of government writers. They speak in a bureaucratic tone that’s stuffy and off-putting. They never wrote like that, until they started working for the government. And at the moment they were handed their first official statement to declare, you the taxpayer cannot perform X action, they thought, I can’t say that. They lost their voice. Now they write like a big machine instead of a human being.
So what’s the solution? My experience coaching writers like this suggests that building a collaborative work environment in which new employees talk to their supervisors and colleagues would go a long way toward preventing that bureaucratic tone.
If the writer keeps the document audience-centered rather than agency-centered, it’s really tough to maintain the distance that a bureaucracy generally requires. So that’s another suggestion.
Finally, listen. Get familiar with the tone, the style, the voice of a person who is doing it right. No organization needs another clone, but we all need a mentor, someone we can listen to, someone who will teach us how to speak.
Bloggers have exactly the opposite problem. We have plenty of mentors – probably too many. The moment we decide to write a blog, we immediately begin to compare ourselves to all the other bloggers out there who have a greater following, a prettier page, and a wittier style than us.
We start trying to imitate them. We set our page up to look like this blog, we start writing this many times a week like that guy, and we start trying to make jokes like this girl. Pretty soon, we find ourselves wearing a lot of mismatched clothing, looking like we’re dressed for an ‘80s-style Halloween party.
We need to remember that we’re likeable. We have friends. We have something to say. And we can be entertaining and informative all on our own.
Before we got on the internet and tried to be so-and-so, what was our favorite color? What did our friends like about us? In three words, how would our best friend describe us in an introduction? Then BE that. Just BE that on a really big stage, with the microphones turned up and the spotlights turned on so that people can hear you and see you and enjoy being in your company.
The poor academics – they have the worst time of it, because of all the writers I work with they have to be themselves, but to a certain extent, they can’t be themselves. It’s like going to a Christmas party with your co-workers at a really expensive restaurant. It’s Christmas. You’re with your spouse or significant other. There’s an expectation that you will let down your hair, talk about your personal rather than your work life, be friendly with people that you perhaps intensely dislike. You’re probably even imbibing.
And so what do you do? You overcompensate! You wear an outfit that is terrifically uncomfortable. You use your finest manners and come off stiff, snobbish, and unapproachable. You can’t remember which fork is the right one to use, so you starve while you watch your boss gobble up what looks like a fabulous entrée. And because you have no food on your stomach, the wine goes straight to your head and you end up stumbling out the door, unfit to drive home.
My advice? Take it down a notch. Not every sentence needs to be loaded down with words that are completely incomprehensible. You could vary your sentence structure so that an occasional simple sentence offers some rhythm. Dependent clauses are not God’s gift to man; stop starting every sentence with them. Use consistent subjects throughout an entire subsection of your document instead of switching in every sentence within a paragraph.
These are just a few suggestions that I’ve learned from the writers I’ve worked with. I hope you find them useful. What about you? When did you lose your voice? And what are you doing to get it back?