Finding your voice, and shutting it off
I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember, and it’s always found ways to sneak into my day-to-day life. I’d write letters to people and never send them; write blogs for zero audience; when Twitter came along, all 49 of my followers were blessed with grammatically correct, original thoughts. Now, I do it for a living, and while it’s amazing to do what I love every day, it can be difficult to not sound like my own voice on a loop.
What is a voice in this context? The voice is how a writer expresses themself in a piece of written work. Their voice can combine different elements, such as their personality, perspective, style or tone. They can also use particular words, phrases, or punctuation/grammatical styles to demonstrate their unique voice. For some writers, their voice on the page is very similar to how they speak in person.
I’ve always had a distinctive voice. I know this because it’s my mom’s voice. I’ll read things I wrote years prior and it’s like I’m listening to my mom speak; colloquial; free versed; casual; sometimes… unfiltered. Personally, I’m not afraid of becoming my mom, so hearing her in myself is a pleasure. That being said, when it comes to writing for various purposes and subjects, it can sometimes be difficult to remove myself (and my mom) from the copy.
It’s a difficult thing to find your voice in the first place, so to then remove that personal element from your writing to become whatever genre or tone it needs to be without sounding like a robot can require some extra effort. If I can offer any insight into altering your “voice”, I’d break it down into three parts:
Stick to the facts
Facts are your friends when it comes to writing in an unbiased or formal setting. For copy relating to things like political, administrative, or governing documents, it’s best to know your facts and state them. Avoid volunteering adjectives that could imply bias or opinions, regardless of your position on the subject at hand. It’s also best not to beat around the bush – for copy of this nature, a lengthy introduction, personal anecdotes and descriptions may not only be unnecessary, but could also hurt your overall message. A lot of your personality comes from your experience – so, best to leave it out!
Avoid slang, jargon, and informal grammar
I’m personally so bad for this. While often necessary to convey a stance, relate to a subject, or stress a point, these habits are usually based on how you speak. Put yourself in the shoes of the person who this message is for: will they understand what I’m saying with zero context? If the answer is anything but yes, you might have to ask yourself why. Are you using terms that are more popular in your line of work? Are you using terms even Google Translate would go “huh?” to? Well… That ain’t good.. so, uh – maybe don’t do that, ok? Sweet, kthxbye. (See what I mean?) Sometimes (a lot of times), those little red and blue underlines are useful!
References and quotes
I find the use of quotes and references very useful. Say you’re writing something where an opinion isn’t necessarily no bueno, but your opinion isn’t relevant or, well, important; a personal element won’t harm the copy, but a personal essay isn’t the goal. This is a great opportunity to include excerpts from professionals, opinions from opinion leaders, or statistics from relevant leading organizations. It allows you to include human opinion and familiar language, but still upholds the overarching point of the copy. As Baltasar Gracián once said, “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” A great example, and a sometimes-accurate statement.
Is this entire piece riddled with Sarah? Absolutely it is! Could I tone it down? Probably. But for the purposes of this article and showing an immaculate example of what it sounds like to write in one’s own voice, now maybe you can trust that I know how to shut it off when necessary (I mean, I do still have a job, right?)