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Developing A Potent Voice

a year ago | Career
Writers often talk about "finding their voice", but what does that even mean? There are ways to loosen the control your internal filters have on your ability to express yourself.
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One thing that gets me into trouble constantly is when I write something challenging. The topic doesn't matter, but if there are feathers to be ruffled I tend to think "well... here comes a breeze friendo".

Writing, to me, is all about truth. Not "The Truth", but my truth. Things I believe and feel strongly about - things that I think are worth saying. So, if it's true to me and I want to say it, that's exactly what I'm going to do. Well... sort of. There are rules here.

One one hand there's what Stephen King suggests:

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

On the other hand, my truth and your truth? It's pretty unlikely they'll align. That's OK! This is why we share ideas and write posts like this one. But I do need to offer you some respect as a reader, don't I? It's easy to be loud and obnoxious, creating incendiary click-bait titles full of noise, amounting to nothing. If it wasn't, people wouldn't do it so much.

I hate that. I'm sure you do too... but what are these rules? How can you develop a voice that's true and welcoming at the same time? I suppose the answer is that you can't, but you can avoid a trainwreck and make your best effort by observing your internal processes and needs, and knowing when they defeat you.

Writing How You Speak

I have a newsletter that I send out from time to time and in one of my posts I discuss ways that I've found helpful for making solid, helpful videos, like the ones you see on this site.

One of my suggestions was to write yourself a script:

People that don't know what to say will usually copy what other people say so they don't have to think for themselves. It's hard to listen to.
Take the time to think through what you're going to talk about, and then write yourself a little script. Work your demo at the same time, and write down the words you hear yourself saying. You would be surprised how tight your presentation gets, and how often you catch yourself saying nonsensical things!

One of my readers, Aaron, responded:

I find I grapple with "writing how I speak" because I tend to get in the weeds... If I could master that, I'd be better at writing for things I intend to be spoken, vs read, and probably write a lot more, too.

I get it. I really do! It's one thing to tell someone the famous writer's nudge: "whatever you're trying to say... just say it" and another to offer some tangible advice. Our words go through a lot of filters as they make their way from our brains to our mouths (or fingers) and, to me, the trick is to realize which of these filters is doing a little too much work.

Knowing Your Filters

I think of The Writer's Voice as that thing deep inside you that has something to say. Formed by your dreams, ideas, inspirations, and frustrations: it wants to speak out!

Thankfully, humans have developed filters over time because speaking too freely tends to be a problem.

Some of us have more filters than others, which finally brings me to the point of this whole post: figure out which filters you need to throttle.

Each of these filters serves a basic need, which we have to discuss if we're going to tweak them.

Acceptance

The need for acceptance is the dominant need of anyone in a group. I don't need to explain this to you, you know it already. But what of this need when it comes to filtering our voice?

This, friend, is where the good stuff lives and understanding how you stop yourself from saying what you need to say, based on this need, is critical. There are so, so many factors at work but know that it really is just one, single filter at work here and if you can adjust it ever soooo slightly, you'll find that your writing becomes massively more effective.

Easy to say, right? Just care a little less about being canceled... Unfortunately, that's exactly what it amounts to.

In 2009 I wrote a post suggesting that ASP.NET developers learn ASP.NET MVC, which was a new framework back then. I worked on the ASP team and we weren't supposed to be offering "prescriptive guidance", yet I felt that was disengenuous. I wouldn't say we were outright lying to people - but I did think we should have done more to help people understand the benefits of the new framework.

So I wrote a post about it. This is from the Internet Archive as I've taken the post down. There was... some heat involved:

Here's the thing: I knew this post was going to blow up. I wrote it anyway. It's filled with direct thoughts and what I consider a hefty dose of "my truth". The first two sentences of this paragraph are examples of this kind of writing: direct, no fluff... just the facts as I see them.

When I wrote this post I did it with extreme care, believe it or not. You might think that when I say "extreme care" I'm talking about trying not to hurt people's feelings but no, not at all. The care was this:

This is how I'm writing this post. I reread every paragraph and I think of you, sitting there, reading these words. In fact this paragraph was twice as long when I first wrote it.

There's a balance to this. Writing with Strunk and White's Rule 17 can be terrifying!

Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

I agree with this when it comes to stories. Casual blog or script writing... that's tough. Terse writing has a punch so the question then becomes "are you trying to throw one?" Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I was trying to throw a few with that blog post above, so I leaned on Rule 17, which means I also had to throttle my acceptance filter.

If you throw punches with your writing, expect a few to come right back at you. That's really the trick: be OK with getting hit. One writer I know had a problem with this and knew it, so he took it on literally. He signed up for muay thai classes with the singular goal of losing the fear of being punched in the face!

I think that's a healthy fear to have, but I admire him for trying.

Validation

It's a horrible feeling when you hit "publish" and no one reads or cares about the thing you just spent days, weeks, and months preparing. You think it'll be a hit, climb Hacker News or Reddit and then... nada.

As I mention: I'm writing this thinking about you. Does that mean I'm writing it for you? In a way, yes. In a way, no. I'm writing for the both of us but, mostly, I'm writing because I enjoy it. It pushes me to explore things in my own mind and out there in the world. When I share it, I do so with the hope that you'll enjoy it...

Nah, I'm lying. You noticed it too, didn't you! While it is indeed true that I'm thinking about you, I also know that if it moves you, I'll feel good about that. The trick is to take a step back and see the boundary between the words on the screen and my need for you to validate my existence. That last bit is toxic!

When I wrote The Imposter's Handbook I knew I was going to take heat because I wrote about things I was trying to learn, which you can read another way: I wrote about things I didn't know. That's a sin when it comes to writing.

The only way I got through the process was to throttle my need for you to validate my effort. The way I did that was to ultimately respect the work for what it would become.

This post, for instance. Many will hate it just because of the law of averages. Many will love it - hopefully there won't be too many in between as that's where the real shame is: mediocrity.

How do you go about setting a boundary, then? This process is related to acceptance, but not entirely. Here's what I think about with each paragraph, and what I'm thinking about now:

I originally wrote this paragraph right here with some self-congratulatory bullshit but I deleted it. It was egotistical and self-serving... it's so easy to do. I mean... I have written a lot and people do ask my advice but... wow is this a balancing act!

So: how much should I care about whether you like what I'm writing? Stephen King would say "not at all":

What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth... What you know makes you unique . . . Be brave.”

Ah yes, be brave. That's good advice unless you're finding that your bravery is in service to your ego. I go there sometimes. As I said, it's hard not to. But you can check yourself as I'm doing right now, by reading over your work and pondering if your theme has switched to:

Let me be clear: there are plenty of people who can crow about themselves and I'll read every bit of it. We all have our heroes and if you couldn't tell, Stephen King is one of mine and I'll read anything he has to say about writing. But that's just the thing: recognizing when you get self important. Did you earn the right to write what you just wrote?

This post is about you developing a voice - specifically a writer's voice. I've done a lot of work on that subject and I want to share the work, not how amazing I am. It's a tightrope but I trust you'll tell me if I'm veering into self-importance. I'm dancing around the assertion that yes, I have earned the right. I've published books and people like what I write and I need to be OK with that if I'm going to keep going... which I really should so let's move on.

Persuasion

People love being persuaded but they hate being sold. There's a difference: the first is when you help someone change their mind and see your point of view, the last is telling the person what they want to hear until they ultimately agree with you, truth be damned.

I find that I get persuasive when I think no one will listen to me. My voice isn't strong enough, so I need to fill it in with fluff and "I promise if you just try this thing it'll be amazing and you'll love it" kind of crap.

The throttle we're working with here is your need to be heard. If you believe you have a voice, you'll believe that people will listen to you. Seems overly simplified, but I find it to be true.

Once again: I'm thinking of you, reading this. I'm rereading my paragraphs as I go, twiddling three dials as I adjust my filters. I'm sharing something I find truthful, a process that has worked for me and brought me great joy (I love writing). Will it work for you? I honestly have no idea - but I hope so!

As you are sensing, all of these needs are related to your core sense of self. This is where your voice comes from, emanating from a truth deep inside you. Everything I've written here amounts to a singular goal: understanding your truth and writing it with conviction. Easier said then done! Let's get tangible.

Once again, I'll fall back to Stephen King's advice on this: read other people's work. This time, however, think about it in terms of mechanics. Where are their filters? Are they trying to sell you on an idea, or congratulate themselves too freely? Do they care if they anger you...

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a palace (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Your Voice Is There, Waiting

Let's go back to the beginning, considering Aaron's question once again:

I find I grapple with "writing how I speak" because I tend to get in the weeds... If I could master that, I'd be better at writing...

Aaron's problem is "the weeds", which I think means that he becomes overly-detailed. Now that we've discussed the filters: which one do you think is active here?

My thought is this: people go into detail or repeat themselves because they don't think you'll care or pay attention. I do it all the time, especially when speaking verbally. Writing, on the other hand, allows me to go back and ponder my throttles, adjusting as I go.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, without an internal voice to guide you through a writing process: try examining how good writers write. I keep bringing up Stephen King because I love what he does, but I'm sure you have writers that you enjoy as well. Try rereading one of your favorite books by them and ponder their commitment to the story.

I think there are outstanding bloggers out there too. I've always enjoyed Scott Hanselman's writing. If I had to point to an influence when it comes to writing a blog, I would say "read Scott". Here's a clip from a post I love - go read it and see how he manages his throttles to bring out his voice:

It's my birthday! I turn 0x22 today, beginning the downward slide to 0x28, and then death. ;) Seriously, it's an interesting birthday because I'm definitely not a "young hotshot" any more. (It's possible I haven't been for 10 years, but I can dream, right?)
It's funny how these things happen. I didn't think I'd be a Computer Person. In high school I was into Theatre, doing a number of plays, a few as the lead or co-lead, and I'd always assumed I'd be on TV by now. Of course, Ryan Reynolds has my career, so I can't do much about that. Heh, maybe I'm still in theater and I don't realize it?

Scott's writing has rhythm, which is effective use of commas and periods to break things up in to a "song". If you've seen him on stage before, that's exactly how he speaks.

Hope you found this post helpful but, if you don't, I'm OK with that too :).

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