by Diana Raab, Ph.D.
Remember when your mother used to say, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”? Well, that statement is all about voice. Your voice conveys your attitude, mood, and relationship to life. Your tone is the voice readers hear when they’re reading, and your voice affects how the reader responds to those words. When writing, it’s important to maintain a consistent attitude throughout your essay, memoir, or short story.
Novice writers sometimes have difficulty with this concept, but there are definitely ways to find your authentic voice. In general, in personal writing the best voice is conversational and sometimes playful.
Writer Patricia Hampl says that the best way to write a story is to think, You tell me your story and I will tell you mine. In other words, when writing, try to imagine that you’re talking to a dear friend or relative over lunch. Make believe that you’re speaking to that person in a conversational manner. Chances are you’ll speak naturally and effectively, using a storytelling voice. Sometimes this includes some reflection, especially if relating an event that occurred a long time ago.
If you want to get a good handle on reflective voice, read Vivian Gornick’s compelling memoir, Fierce Attachments. Gornick is not only recapping her story, but is sharing thoughts and reflections on her life. She is the adult looking backward.
When using a conversational tone, you’re saying, “Come gather around, everyone; here’s my story.” Many people who’ve gone through some type of trauma realize that the only way they can talk about it is through writing. In this way, the most intimate voice can be used.
In personal writing, there are different types of voices that can be utilized. In memoirs, the most common is called the composite voice, which combines both the child and adult voice. For example, you might describe a childhood memory while using an adult reflective voice that looks back on the past. This voice often encompasses reflections and musings.
When you’re trying to find your voice, it’s important to feel the experience in your body and describe it in that way. Think about each part of your body as a vehicle for words and sound. In doing so, you’ll detect patterns, sounds, and objects that you might not ordinarily notice.
Here are some ways you can practice establishing your voice:
- Journal regularly. The journal can be a testing ground for your voice. It’s a place to discover what you do and do not know about yourself. You may begin to see your life themes, and understand what excites and bothers you. Journaling involves “free-writing” or stream-of-consciousness writing, which taps into your subconscious. Begin free-writing with a word or phrase that is enticing, such as silky skin, overstuffed chair, daydreaming, or unpredictable future. Be playful.
- Read and select books that have a voice you want to emulate.
- Make a habit of letter writing. This is a good way to establish your voice. You can consider writing letters to loved ones, friends, or those who’ve passed away. But just because you write the letter doesn’t necessarily mean you need to send it. The mere act of writing is important. If you’re writing a book, you can consider inserting a letter at the beginning of a chapter.
- When feeling stuck about voice, use “ifs.” When you use the word if in consecutive sentences, it’s a way of getting the words out in a voice that is compelling, and which conveys your authentic self.
- Write in your child voice. Children tend to be natural storytellers and improvise more easily than adults. They often choose images that paint a vivid picture for the receiver.