Finding your voice
Updated: Mar 30, 2019
By Adil Alvi, Emily Cho, and Jennifer Wang
There’s something intimidating about the concept of finding one’s voice. That’s how it is for me, at least. Just yesterday, I received an email from the New Yorker entitled “The Best of the Best.” The magazine selected some of the best and brightest movies, books, music, and television shows of 2018. When reading the write-ups, I realized that all of these pieces, regardless of their medium, had something in common: each captivated the viewer with its own, distinctive voice. As with all great masterpieces, there was a strong sense of soul embedded into each piece.
It’s one thing to experience a piece of writing with a strong voice, and another to find your own voice and incorporate it into your writing. As a high schooler, I always think to myself, am I too young to have a distinctive voice? Do I have to become an adult for me to emerge as a writer with an authentic voice? Here’s the thing: voice is voice. There are voices that may seem older, more sophisticated, than other voices. But throughout my reading experiences, I’ve come to realize that the voices which captivate are honest. They are not afraid to reveal sensitive or controversial aspects of a certain identity. In fact, it is this vulnerability that readers find solidarity in.
Especially during the editing process, I find myself re-examining my “voice” in my writing. I find that when I’m more honest and vulnerable, the voice seems to gain dimension. On the other hand, when I hide aspects about a certain experience, topic, or character, the voice loses this necessary quality and quickly flattens. Voices that tell stories that have already been told countless times lose their luster. It’s the young voices that are not afraid to expose themselves and their authentic experiences which rise to the top.
Always remember: developing your writing voice is a lifelong process. There are most certainly times when I drag myself into unnecessary despair because it seems as though my voice is not complete or powerful enough. If that’s what you’re feeling, try finding others who are willing to offer feedback. It’s always a good idea to seek fellow writers. After all, we’re all on the same boat.
Last but not least: read some of your favorite authors! By becoming familiar to the way they present their voice in their own literary narratives, it may become easier for you to find your own voice. Sometimes, when I am really stumped, I crack open one of my all time favorite novels. The polished voice of a published author can become a central pillar in your own writing endeavor, something to constantly look back at and perhaps even emulate. Analyze how the voice is affecting not only the characters, setting, and scene, but also you as a reader and human. That kind of thinking can most definitely help you with your own literary endeavors.
Best of luck, writers. May the year 2019 become a year where you continue writing, reading, and developing your own powerful voice in both the written and spoken word.
Finding your own voice is incredibly important for every writer. Ever since I started writing from a very young age, I’ve always had this desire to stand out from everyone else. I used to think that was because I care too much about my image, but I grew up to realize that it’s normal to want to be your own person and be known for your style.
I wasn’t sure how to develop a style, and that issue really plagued me for a while. I could try writing in so many different ways, but every single “style” boiled down to an overarching well-known style, such as that of Shakespearean language or even the incorporation of a ‘tragic hero’ in a story. This comes from a place of adoration, but it did leave me feeling as though I couldn’t come up with something that was authentically mine. I was confused; how am I supposed to be unique when I seem to be following a pattern someone else is known for? Soon, I realized that no matter what style I follow, my content should be unique, and that is what I want to share with my fellow prospective authors: know your worth as a writer with great content, and your worth should not be dependent on your distinctiveness, but rather your passion.
I often found that my writing was reflective of my passions, one of which is politics. In so many pieces, my political inclination seemed to come through. I spent a lot of time pondering over whether or not I should remove certain parts that were indicative of my opinions, but I decided not to, four years later, at the age of 17, I now look back on them and use them to measure my growth as an individual. I feel as though it is important for writers to cherish their pieces, because they reflect their growth and are cherishable.
Finding your passion can be a difficult process. Always remember the importance of experimenting! You will never know what you can and can’t do unless you try. While I know it sounds scary and knowing you can’t do something you want to do is heartbreaking, there will always be skills that you possess that very few others do. Always keep an open mind and make sure to try as many new things as possible.
Transparency is a key aspect of finding your voice. Do not feel as though you need to censor yourself for the audience that you are trying to “appeal to”, because in sugarcoating your message, you lose sight of why you were writing in the first place, and this is something I have had to learn. This is another thing I would like to share with my fellow writers out there. Always tell it like it is; after all, if not you, who else will?
The difference between a decent story and an engrossing story can be the execution of voice. Effective narration can make or break a story because diction, syntax, and tone are the foundation to crafting a story and conveying it. Everyone has a voice when they write, but these voices may not be uniquely their own. Often, writers pick up others’ voices and styles. This does not mean that your voice is ineffective. Having a voice that “feels” like someone else’s can be good—as long as not too many others have done the same thing.
There are ways to identify what your voice is like and deal with the flaws. Ask yourself:
How often do you describe things in detail? How often do you use adverbs and adjectives? Do you usually place dialogue tags before or after the dialogue, and how detailed are these tags? Within a scene, physically how far apart is the narration and the action? Do you speak as if you’re the narrator? Do you speak as if your protagonist is the narrator?
Whether you use a lot of details, whether you or your character speaks as narrator, or not, your voice can be effective, but knowing what you do a lot of and what you do little of is the foundation for manipulating your voice to attract readers. If you write detailed descriptions, make sure you can judge what’s necessary and what’s not. Little tweaks with this and learning to disperse (or intensify) description brings readers closer to your story or poem because, as a writer, you are weighing each word’s usefulness. If your dialogue tags can be placed on either side of the dialogue, keep in mind that readers read from left to right and the order of dialogue and dialogue tags matter on a subtle but vocal level.
If you speak as the narrator, make sure your tone shines through. If you speak as a character, make sure their voice either hides your voice or melds with your voice. Imagine getting angry at politics and then writing. Your voice should sound tense or stressed: diction would reflect anger, and sentences might be clipped. If you’re sad, your voice might be slow, pained. If you’re happy, your voice could be optimistic, hopeful, or pleased. Now, pretend you’re experiencing these emotions with your character. Perhaps your protagonist was wronged. They might feel betrayed, helpless, and angry. How would you feel in their shoes?
Voice is a matter of empathy, diction, and syntax (style), and tone, and it’s most relevant when you maintain the same voice toward widely different situations while still being able to express each emotion. My last questions for you to help you discover is “Can you identify each of your friends only by the way they talk? Why are you able to do this? When are you unable to do this?” If you can answer this question, then apply it to yourself when you write. What makes your writing distinctively you?
An outspoken, respectfully unapologetic and perhaps overly empathetic activist, Adil Alvi is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit.
In addition to serving as an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit, Emily "Emmy" Cho enjoys writing her own poetry and fiction pieces.
Jennifer Wang is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger for Voices.