The sound of your voice: Personalizing your writing

We often hear writing advice telling us to ‘develop our voice.’ All well and good, but what exactly IS voice?

If you close your eyes and just listen, what can you learn about a person through their voice? More than you’d think! Their sex, what part of the country they are from, possibly their age. But you also learn things like what excites them, when are they bored, what do they dwell with nostalgia.

In a similar way, when you pick up the phone, you can recognize a familiar voice (usually) within a sentence or two. How? Through tone of voice, pacing of words, questions asked, pauses, inflections, choice of words.

It is possible, and in fact, essential, to develop this same sense of identity through written words. If you can be intentional about voice, your writing will improve and your readership will increase.

On Writing Well

I just finished rereading On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. It was first published in 1976 and has sold over a million copies. With good reason! Zinsser knows how to write. And he shows us how to wordsmith as well.

“Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line, but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and cliches.”

He offers the following suggestions to finding your voice:

Write with respect for the English language

Write with taste, with that core of truthfulness that spans the depth of time

Write to express your own individuality

Write using common, practical words, using fresh imagery and avoiding cliches

Write with what seems inevitable in your own heritage and experience

Joe the Plumber’s voice

Remember Joe-the-Plumber? Joe Wurzelbacher had his 7 1/2 minutes of fame during the past presidential debates. By coincidence two journalists writing for the Detroit Free Press used him as a topic for their columns, and both columns were published on the same day.

Each journalist has his own distinctive style writing. MITCH ALBOM is the author of Tuesdays with Morrie and Five People you’ll meet in heaven. His books have collectively sold over 26 million copies in 42 languages worldwide. BRIAN DICKERSON is not as famous as Mitch, but a good solid writer, nonetheless.

They sound different. Each can be recognized by his voice. Let’s examine how they do this by a comparison of excerpts from their columns.

Title of column

Mitch’s column title is: “An Average Joe can’t fix America’s pipes.”

Brian: “Mistaken identity: Joe the Plumber’s bumpy 15 minutes.”

First paragraph:

Mitch: “Until last week, the most common axiom about plumbers was that when they bent over to fix a pipe, you could see the crack of their butts. Not anymore. Thanks to Joe Wurzelbacher, we can now go to plumbers for our political future.”

Brian: “Poor John McCain! He should have called me before he made the fateful decision to thrust Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber into the national spotlight.”

Theme of the column:

Mitch: “In politics, we overdo the small picture because we get bored with the big picture. Our eyes glaze over when candidates talk policy. The devil is in the details, but we’re not interested in the devil. We’d rather watch, be entertained, be told a story.”

Brian: “I don’t judge McCain too harshly for seeing Joe as a perfect specimen, rather than the more complicated creater he is—a human being who was bound to behave unpredictably in the glare of national exposure.”

Final paragraph:

Mitch: “How many people will want to hire an unlicensed plumber who owes money on his taxes? And we haven’t even mentioned a butt crack.”

Brian: “Poor Samuel Joseph! He should have talked to ‘Daily Show’ comic John Oliver, who warns: ‘Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. What they don’t tell you is that 12 of those minutes are a rectal exam.'”

[You can read both columns in their entirety in the October 19, 2008 edition of the Detroit Free Press]

Brian‘s voice is more casual than Mitch. He uses shorter sentences and popular images. He is more personal, in ways. You get a definite sense of who he is and what he believes.

Mitch, on the other hand, plays with words. He delights in the image of a a plumber’s pipes leading America. His voice is quieter, more thoughtful.

Find your own voice

Your voice will become just as distinctive as theirs, over time, if you write with intention.

Think about who your audience is, create good content, but never forget who YOU are. Let us listen to your voice!

Photo by: hobvias sudoneighm


About Author, Pegasus Quincy Mystery Series

I write a mystery series about a young rookie deputy on her first assignment in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
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