On Finding Your Voice

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[Editor’s note: Jonathan Rogers has begun a newsletter in which he shares many years’ worth of practical advice on the craft of writing. He named it The Habit because, as he says, “good writing isn’t so much a matter of brilliance as a matter of habit: habits of seeing, habits of thinking, habits of working.”

What follows is a peek into his wisdom. If you’d like to read more, you can sign up for his newsletter here.]

Kayla C asked, How do I find my written voice, and how will I know I have found it? Sometimes I have a difficult time figuring out whether I am actually writing in my own voice (and what exactly that voice sounds like) or just emulating the voices of writers I admire.

“Finding your voice” feels like a monumental task, but here is a simple place to start: in your writing, weed out every sentence and phrase that you can’t imagine saying out loud with a straight face. Expect to hear echoes of your spoken voice in your written voice.

Obviously, written language is typically more formal than spoken language. So I’m not suggesting that your written voice should sound exactly like the way you talk on a daily basis. That’s why I say you should be writing sentences that you could imagine saying out loud, not sentences that you actually do say out loud. Imagine how the most brilliant and articulate version of you would talk, and write like that. I’m joking—but I’m only half-joking.

There’s no shame in emulating good writers; give yourself that freedom. But if you’re going to give yourself that freedom, you also have to be committed to cutting out whatever doesn’t work. If you end up writing a sentence that would make your friends laugh at you if you said it out loud, get rid of it—or rephrase in language that sounds more like you.

Expect your voice to change over time. Your voice is not a static thing. This is true of both your spoken voice and your written voice.

Jonathan Rogers

Part of the way I settled into my own voice was reading a whole lot of Flannery O’Connor (her letters even more than her fiction). As her writing influenced my writing, I realized that a lot of what she did felt natural to my own way of using language. On the other hand, as much as I admire Faulkner as a writer, his voice is so alien to mine that he hasn’t had much impact on my writing, one way or another.

One more thing…when you do settle into your voice, expect your voice to change over time. Your voice is not a static thing. This is true of both your spoken voice and your written voice. If you ever hear a recording of your voice from an earlier phase of life, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

You can sign up for Jonathan’s newsletter here.

And if you feel like going the extra mile, there are two ways you can lend a hand to Jonathan’s good work.

1) If you found this letter helpful, please forward it to a friend who might benefit, and/or share on social media.

2) If you have a question that you’d like Jonathan to address in a future installment of The Habit, send him an email here.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


1 Comment

  1. Matt Garner

    @mattgarner

    Just signed up for your newsletter 🙂 Always fascinated by this question because there are so many differing opinions. Read widely! Don’t read widely! Write for three hours a day at least! Don’t write unless inspiration strikes! Morning pages! Evening pages! Toilet pages! I’ve met successful writers who write religiously every day and writers who only write when they’re on deadline. I’d be curious of your thoughts on character voice. How do you suppose a writer finds one’s voice when they’re writing dialogue, creating characters wildly unlike themselves who say things they never would? I ask as someone who writes mostly plays. My prose voice only finds audience in the stage directions.

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