No matter what stage in the writing process you’re at, it’s hard to describe what your own writing voice is. From beginners to experts. It’s an abstract concept. Like, what makes your favorite pizza unique? Great question. Because you may think it’s the cheese and you go home and try to replicate it and it’s never the same. Never. It doesn’t have the same voice. It barely even speaks the same language.
Every writer has to find their own voice, but for as abstract the concept of writing voice is on its own, the concept of discovering a writing voice is even more abstract. How do you define what makes your writing unique? How do you define what makes your writing uniquely you?
There may be a way.
In every Creative Writing 101 class I teach at Gotham Writers, there’s a very clear pivot point in the class. It’s a six-week class, and in week three, that pivot occurs. While the discussion centers around what makes these burgeoning writers unique, the common responses of “I don’t really know,” or “Nothing, really” are quickly eradicated by the writing exercise. After which each of the students has the beginnings of a clear and distinct voice where once they all tend to muddle together or become one in the same.
That’s because of the writing activity in week three—“Write About Something You Hate.”
That’s it. Just pick something you hate and write about why.
There are a multitude of ways this can go. I have seen such a diverse array of approaches to this exercise and each one embodies what makes a writer uniquely them. From unfiltered rants about Penn Badgley, to a heartfelt, lyrical hatred of a mother’s Alzheimer’s, to an academic dive into despising the feeling of loneliness, to an oddly specific and lifelong rage against wood paneling, all of these unrelated topics and approaches have one thing in common—they are all, and continue to be, wholly unique in their approach.
What Voice Is and Isn’t
Before we get too far, it’s best to try to define that which is indefinable. Yes, a writing voice is what makes you unique, but you could write a book and purposely misspell every word and call it uniquely yours. That doesn’t mean it’s your writing voice. A great place to start in this definition is Meg Rosoff’s definition. She defined writing voice as, “the deepest possible reflection of who you are.” She then added, “The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”
Sounds pretty profound. But it hits on the major principles. Voice is not sentence structure. Voice is not word choice. It isn’t even really the style. The writing voice is the writer’s personality. So in a sense, it combines all these things to form one product. The same way a human being isn’t just a torso or a gallbladder, the writing voice is not just one thing or another. It’s bits and pieces of all these things rolled up into one.
The same way every human being has their own personality, every writer has their own voice. But just like your personality, you have to develop that voice over time. And it is an ongoing process, likely without an end.
The thing is, when you’re actively thinking about your writing voice, you’re bound to struggle with it. Even when you have a voice, if you are trying to make sure everything fits your voice, it’s going to sound contrived. You ever notice how breathing is suddenly more difficult when you’re actively thinking about it?
You shouldn’t have to think about your writing voice when you’re actually writing. Which is why it’s great to start exploring what makes your voice unique earlier rather than later. Then when you write, you revert to muscle memory—your voice—and don’t have to think about.
So let’s find some voices. Cue the hatred.
No Holding Back
Hate is a strong emotion. Arguably the strongest, I’d say. The exercise is not, “Write About Something You Dislike” or “Write About Something That Irks You.” I would be getting writing about bug bites, melted ice cream and junk mail. Maybe a few would start to blossom in the voice category, but when we’re talking about hate, there is no holding back. There is no going timidly into hate, so when a human being approaches the concept of hate, they immediately have to throw off any barriers or filters and fully embrace their feelings on this subject.
You have to really bear down and decide what one thing you can sink your teeth into for the duration of the exercise. If you’re going to commit to giving words to this subject matter, something that you stew over regularly, you have to be ready to let the fire fly. And trust me, if you’re not fully invested, it will show. If you’re just dipping your toe, you sound hesitant, unsure, passive. That’s not a good writing voice. A good writing voice is confident, unwavering, passionate.
And that last word is the key—passion. Not every piece is going to get ridiculous, it’s not all going to be hilarious or heartfelt or punchy, but if you ride your writing into your hatred, it is all going to be full of passion, no matter how directed. And passion is the soil to plant the seeds of your writing voice in. You water that patch of dirt with experience and before long, you have this unique, flowery garden full of thorns and blossoms and prickles and scents and no one else’s garden will ever look like yours.
But… The Negativity
I know, it’s not fun focusing on something you hate. After all, who wants to give words to their unspoken desire to clamp anyone’s mouth shut who eats with their mouth open? (No? Just me?) In order to explore that hatred, you will likely feel that hatred. I can hear people chomping right now. It’s driving me crazy. And that’s why it works.
While it doesn’t usually float my boat to quote the incredibly evil and surprisingly long-lived Emperor Palpatine, had he been a writing teacher and Luke Skywalker his eager pupil, he did give Luke one good piece of writing advice—give into your anger. Although he would have added a small caveat—just for this exercise. Don’t hold back. Readers know when you are holding back. They can tell when the whole truth isn’t there.
Yes, you are focusing on something negative. Something that may weigh you down. But writing is truth. If you can’t provide that truth, your readers will find someone else who can. Sometimes writing can be uncomfortable. Do you think my student who wrote about her mother’s Alzheimer’s enjoyed thinking about it? Nope. But what came out of it was a piece of work oozing with originality, emotion, and depth.
If you slap those three adjectives on any piece of my writing, I’m calling it a good day.
Hate Your Way to Great
So I’ve talked this up enough, now let’s get you hating your way to a distinguishable writing voice. If you haven’t already figured it out by now, the exercise is quite simple. Make a list of things you hate. I mean truly hate. The kind of thing you experience and get consumed by—I’m talking fuming.
And then write about it. It’s okay to rant. I often get students asking me how they don’t come off as ranting. Come off as ranting! It’s kind of fun. We all like venting from time to time, right? Vent on the page. Or, if you don’t want to come off as ranting, back it with research. My student who started her piece with “I want to punch Penn Badgely in the face” included a remarkable amount of research and background. By the end, I wanted to punch him in the face too.
Let the piece simmer (it’ll need to, trust me) but then revisit it. What approach did you take? Were you tongue-in-cheek? Were you affirmative and driven? Were you sorrowful? These are the seeds that will make up your writing voice garden. Embrace them. Plant them in that dirt plot—it’s okay, there’s room—and water them regularly.
It’s not a one and done. You won’t just write a page about hating Microsoft Office Suite and come out with a sparkly writing voice. But once you break down those barriers holding back your truth once, it becomes easier and easier to break them down again. You have to knock down those walls to get to the inner truth of your writing.
And if you ever find yourself struggling to break them down again, pick item No. 2 on that hate list of yours and have at it a second time.
This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine