When Did You Lose Your Voice?

The Writer's TriangleIf 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.

Overdressed and Uncomfortable

These guys are just a little overdressed for the occasion.

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?

Comments

  1. My latest excuse for losing my voice is the fact that I’ve been participating in writing a Baldrige-based application for a state quality award.

    There’s little room for creativity, and the winners seem to write in the language of the application’s questions. It is necessarily a contrived and constrained method of communicating. It’s not my style, and I tried to deform my style to fit the constrained spaces of the criteria.

    It’s not for everyone — and, if it were easy, everyone could do it.

    • Hi Jim – nice to see you again. Contests, like grants, are the purview of the academic. They require that you, as you say, constrain yourself into the confines established by the judges with the elusive and paradoxical promise that if you win, you will be given permission to be yourself. Hence Paris’ selection of Aphrodite and the chaos that ensued. I wish you the best of luck, both winning your application and recovering your voice when your task is complete.

  2. Reminds me of an experience in Georgia when I entered second grade. I was an Army brat originally from Chicago, but we had been in Japan for several years. While I knew how to read, I could not figure out the strange chant my classmates were bleating out: “Aaya-beseyuh-deayephgee …” That night, when I told my father, he laughed and said, “That’s how they say the alphabet here in the South.” Like you, I refused to play along and stuck with my standard English Army officer accent.

  3. I followed a message on LinkedIn from you inviting me to the webinar, but have just read every single post on this site with the greatest interest! You are truly an excellent writer and your words are most insightful. I am so glad I stopped by.
    Unfortunately, the time difference in South Africa makes attending your presentation quite difficult, but I will most definitely be returning regularly to your blog! All of the best.

  4. This made beautiful reading. I need to find out more about dependent clauses and be sure not to start with one.
    I started life with the same accent as The Beatles (they were our local band when I was a teenager).
    When our family moved to Australia it was not acceptable to speak with a Liverpool accent – it made us ‘different’. So I lost it.
    But I’m not sorry about that – it is no longer my authentic voice. I’m still looking for what IS.
    My best writing is describing family – so many things go wrong in our family, leading to hilarious situations. But when I write for business reasons I become formal. I thought that was the way we had to be. Obviously not! Loved this post Michelle.

    • Welcome Julia! No worries – I’ve read your work, and you’re not using dependent clauses. It’s funny you mention that little band from across the pond as I’m listening to Chris Carter’s “Breakfast with the Beatles” right now and celebrating John Lennon’s 70th brithday. I look forward to watching your writing evolve to incorporate some of those hilarious family situations. Best wishes–Michelle

  5. Hi! I´m just meeting you. I´m an EFL teacher from Uruguay… Spanish native speaker and writer. But I love writing in both languages. I enjoyed a lot reading your article but I translated to many other aspects of life, rather than writing.Specially being oneself in front of others, for instance, when you are being supervised while teaching!!
    By the way, I remember being a girl and singing Country Roads, and imagining the Shenadoah river. Fortunately I could visit that place when I was 22 and wish the moment I can go again. A pleasure to meet you!

    • Hello Andrea, and welcome! I appreciate the way you see this article in many different facets. And I sympathize with being supervised while teaching. Best wishes to you! Thank you for sharing your memories, and I wish you well in your teaching and writing career – Michelle

  6. Great input about speaking with your authentic voice! Many of us can’t find it. As an Army officer’s daughter I was taught to put on an act and not be myself. Now, I am trying to unlearn that. Barbara Fifield

  7. Lyn Goodpaster says:

    What an amazing gift to myself to have found and read this, and I thank you for it. Oh, so many things to say… When I began practicing dentistry many years ago, I thought I had to be that stuffy professional–respectful but distant, expert, hands-off (figuratively). When I learned to drop all that nonsense and just be myself with my patients, we all started having more fun. They told me they actually liked coming to the dentist. Now switching careers, I’m having difficulty finding that natural voice in my writing. What I find refreshing from you is that you’re giving us permission to be who we really are. And sometimes that’s all anybody is looking for: validation and permission. Thank you.

  8. Redsetter119 says:

    Wise words. I didn’t exactly lose my voice but it was assaulted when, in third grade, I said “yeah”. The teacher said “Are you a little Dutch girl? The word is ‘yes,’ not ‘yeah’. “I am a little Dutch girl,” I said. “Yup.”

  9. I had to giggle when I saw the author of this article is: Corporate Writing Pro. I guess it is a pet peeve of mine, but I advise my clients to always use your name, and your real name at that.

    But this article really puts it all together on why we may write the way we do. I know for me, I was that ‘corporate pro’ for over 30 years. Was educated, trained and drilled into my head how to write the perfect corporate letter and report.

    So it took me a while to find my own voice. Today I really do enjoy communicating my thoughts, even though I know I do not have the perfect writing skill or verbiage. However, I took away from this article that people want you to be transparent and part of that is communicating in your own way.

    I do get ideas for certain words I want to express by reading other blogs. I also have a couple very good writing friends and they have been helpful too. But this is good information that I will be adding to my favorites! Thank you for your tips, advice and really enjoyed your story as well.

    • Oh my goodness Lynn – I never thought about that, and here I am teaching people how to be authentic! Thank you for pointing out that I too could use some training and feedback.
      And I’m really glad to hear that the message of the post came through. I hope that more writers like yourself can find ways to write within their organizations in ways that are still feel personable and genuine.
      Best wishes – Michelle

  10. I have worked for years as a state contractor and have had to follow certain guidelines in my writing. It took me a long time to regain my creativity in my personal writing after being under constraints for so many years. I have learned over time, to leave my corporate writing at the door, and take out my creativity once I walk into my own home. I carry it with me all the time– my voice never leaves. I just put it on pause at work, and let it role its voice when I am out of that work space. We all have an inner voice, a writing voice. It all comes from the same source- its within you! WE need no permission to use it, or we need no justification from others to use it. Listening to your voice can give such freedom and growth to self-discovery and creativity.

  11. Megan Merchant says:

    It’s funny, I’m a writer but don’t write personally, so I’ve never thought about *my* authentic voice. The feedback I receive from my clients, however, is that I do a great job of capturing their voice and making their messages approachable. I’ve always chalked that up to not thinking too hard! I tend write as if I’m having a conversation – I have the discussion in my head and the words come out my fingertips onto the keyboard. It’s not me, but it is real, and that’s what resonates. It may not work for every situation, but then I’m probably not the right writer for the situations where it doesn’t. So I guess that does make it authentic after all.

    • Hello Megan, and welcome. If you enjoy what you’re doing, and your clients are happy with the finished product, then it sounds like you’re doing a great job! it also sounds like you’d make a good character actor, like role playing comes naturally to you. It’s nice to meet you, Megan. Best wishes – Michelle

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