Many beginning writers make one mistake that dooms their books to failure. The don’t write with their own voice.
They avoid putting themselves into their writing, thinking that an objective, personality-free tone will make them sound more professional. Instead, they end up producing a dry, lifeless manuscript that readers will put aside.
What Does Voice Mean?
Voice isn’t the same as style. Developing your writer’s voice doesn’t mean that you try to develop a unique way of writing like James Joyce or Ernest Hemingway. It means developing the voice that’s uniquely yours.
In “4 Ways to Start Writing Like an Expert,” Tamara Powell writes:
“One of the best writing tips I’ve ever received came from my writing group. A fellow grad student sensed that a member of the group felt he needed to talk about a concept in the same way as its originator, and the student encouraged his friend by saying:
‘Don’t surrender your voice to talk about other people’s ideas on their terms. Tell your story and use it to illuminate the ideas of others.’
As an apprentice in your field, it can be tempting to hide behind the voice and vocabulary of someone more established. And yes, it can be helpful to try others’ techniques while you’re learning, but eventually you have to start speaking for yourself. If you don’t adopt your own voice, you’ll never add to the ideas of others—you’ll stay stuck trying to sound like everyone else.”
How I Write with my Own Voice
I have never written my autobiography or a memoir, but every book I’ve written has personal anecdotes.
I write about my children and my husband, which tells readers that I, like many of them, have had to juggle family and career.
I describe my challenges in starting and running a successful business. I’m candid about my mistakes, which teaches my readers that missteps don’t have to be fatal.
I share how I felt tense, embarrassed, and vulnerable when opposing lawyers questioned me as an expert witness and what I’ve learned about staying cool under pressure.
Basically, I say, “I’m a human being who has concerns, who fails at times, and who keeps going. So can you.”
You have unique stories that share your perspective, make your points, and help the readers apply what they’ve read.
Keeping Your Voice
One of the fears authors express to me is that an editor or ghostwriter will change their voice. Your editor’s job is to make sure your book is as free of errors as possible and sounds like you.
But there are limits. What if your authentic voice is not a match for your subject matter?
One author whose book I edited sprinkled his work with profanity. I’m on his email list and he does not use those words when he is marketing, so I was puzzled as to why he used so many in his book. It did not call for rough language.
In this project, I tempered his voice. I left in a few of the words. He laughed when he saw my explanation, and admitted he reinserted some of the words. See his testimonial about the experience here.
Ultimately it is your book, your voice, and your decision about how you want to come across.
If your book Is edited in such a way that it sounds like it was written by a different person, then the disparity in voices will puzzle your audience. This will make then question your authenticity. If you see this trend emerging in work your editor sends you, have a discussion about the changes and your expectations.
Help the Reader to Identify With You
Establishing a connection is the ultimate point of writing in your own voice. You don’t want the reader to think, “This person is an expert. This person never made a wrong move. He/she would never understand what I go through.”
You want the reader to feel that you’ve been through what they are experiencing, that you’ve made mistakes, and that you will no doubt continue to make mistakes.
You want them to feel that you’re on their side and that you’ve written this book to help them through their rough spots.
If you succeed in doing that, you’ll be speaking to them with your voice—loud and clear.
Pat Iyer (left) is a ghostwriter, editor, and book coach who helps people write in their voice.