As someone who earns her living writing and editing, I can attest to the fact that one of the hardest parts of writing is developing the right voice. Whether it’s a fictional short story you’re writing for fun (wait, people consider that fun?) or copy for a Facebook ad you’re running (this is probably more likely the case), finding and refining the right voice for your audience is absolutely critical when it comes to creating content that people will actually read and—bonus point!—remember. Today, then, I wanted to gather my top tips and tricks for diving head-first into the pen-to-paper game. Channel your inner Twain, and read on:
Remember That It’s Not Supposed To Be Easy
People tend to give up on writing rather quickly because it’s not easy for them. But I promise you (as in pinky swear) that writing is not easy for anyone…even those of us who’ve chosen it as a career path (silly us). Consider this quote from Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I can’t think of a quote about writing that is more accurate. You’re coming up with content out of thin air and molding it into a story— that takes imagination, confidence and some serious linguist skills.
If you’re working on refining your voice for your company blog, website copy or marketing efforts and are about ready to throw in the towel and pull out your hair (or a combination of both), remind yourself of the Hemingway quote. Writing is an artform. It takes practice and, most of all, patience. Be kind to yourself, and remember that even the best writers in the world struggle on a daily basis (yes, daily).
Start With “Free Writes”
When you’re first starting out, I recommend doing one “free write” each day. A free write is an exercise where you sit down, set a timer (I recommend five minutes, but you can start with three if five seems like too much), and force yourself to write for that entire time. The only rule is this: you aren’t allowed to pause once. Your pen (or your fingers on the keyboard) should be moving the entire time. This may mean that you’re literally typing a combination of what you see in front of you and/or nonsense just to keep things moving. (I’m staring at an empty plate that, five minutes ago, contained a pile of almonds, which were salty like the ocean and crunchy like my hair after a swim in a chlorine-soaked pool.) That’s ok—that’s what’s supposed to happen. The idea is to simply get your writing juices flowing—and to train your brain to write without overthinking and without fear of judgment.
Writer’s Tip: I typically go without a prompt when I free write, but if you think you’ll need a little extra kick-start to get going, give yourself a subject (i.e. “Describe your childhood room”) to work with for each free write. I also am a huge fan of The Storymatic, a box of endless writing prompts.
Allow Yourself To Play
Remember, first drafts are for one person only: you. Even as someone who’s been writing for over a decade, I still have to constantly remind myself that no one is watching and judging as I write my first draft. I’ll find that a super creative sentence comes to mind and then I think Eh, that sounds absolutely ridiculous and stop myself from writing it down. Why? Who cares if it sounds ridiculous? It could be the spark that starts a holy-beautiful-khaleesi-worthy fire, and yet I’ve just stomped it out for fear of judgment. First drafts are messy and glorious and terrible—let them be all of those things. Write your first draft with two rules in mind: (1) Force yourself to write down everything that comes to mind—regardless of whether it sounds silly or not, and (2) You’re not allowed to make any judgment statements about your work—even silently in your mind—while you write (so force yourself to turn off that naysayer who lives in the back of your brain for a few minutes).
Read, Read, Read…And Then Read Some More
In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King writes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of. No shortcut.” I couldn’t agree more.
Every good writer is an avid reader, and every single sentence you read makes you a better writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a young-adult fiction novel or a professional development guide, as long as you’re reading. Challenge yourself to read one thing once each day. This can be a chapter in a book or an article in a newspaper (but social media posts don’t count—even those paragraph-long Gram captions). I carry a physical book with me anywhere I go and am constantly surprised by all of the opportunities I get to read in public (long grocery store lines, waiting at a doctor’s office, at red lights, etc.).
Reading is especially important for those who aren’t great with grammar. No matter how brilliant your content is, if you’re using the wrong your or than or it’s, people will write off your work as being sub-par or elementary. The more you read, the better your grammar will become.
Writer’s Tip: I never sit down to read—regardless of whether it’s for work or enjoyment—without my favorite pad of sticky notes and a pencil in hand. Mark up quotes you like, sentence-structures that call to you, words you don’t know, etc. When you’re done with the book, go back through your marked-up pages and start a document/note where you write down (or type out) everything you learned from that book (define the vocabulary words you learned, copy down the sentences you like along with a note about why you liked them, etc.).
Define Your Voice And Do Your Research
Once you’ve spent time practicing free writes and reading daily, you’re ready to define your voice. Assuming you’re writing on behalf of your business, how do you want your company to sound? Approachable? Professional? Laid back? By the book? Research your competitors and read through their bios, website copy, blog posts and social media posts. What do you like about the way they sound, and what aspects of their voice do you not care for? Take some time developing an idea of how you want your business to sound as well as reviewing other businesses with voices you like. Then, start to look at ways you can incorporate that “feeling” into every single thing you write on behalf of your company.
For example, when a client tells me they want to sound “fun and approachable while still remaining professional” (a super common request), I like to ensure that at least 10-20 percent of whatever it is I’m turning into them has a “fun” edge to it. This doesn’t mean slapping an exclamation point on a sentence and calling it “fun” (something that people tend to do), but rather, working some personality and clever bits into the content itself via the incorporation of personal details, anecdotes and asides. (I.e. for a company bio, I might writing something like, “Lead Graphic Designer Maria Garcia is fueled by pixel-perfect artwork that drives traffic to her clients websites, the power of women in tech, and her lifelong hunt for the perfect cappuccino.” The first two bits of information are a bit more professional, while the final piece of information—the bit about her love for cappuccinos—is much more personal and fun.)
People tend to think punctuation is what makes something fun or not fun (I had chicken for dinner. = not fun; whereas I had chicken for dinner! = so much fun!) I, however, tend to think the use of an exclamation point is sort of the lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to softening up content or adding in some voice. Force yourself to get clever with the content itself—rather than just the punctuation—in order to add personality to a piece. (i.e. I had buttermilk-fried chicken for dinner and it took me back to a time when barefoot berry pickin’ was in abundance and Insta-uploadin’ didn’t exist.)
Overall, when it comes to developing and refining your written voice, it’s all about striking a balance that will resonate with your target audience. This is a skill that takes practice, but certainly one that can be achieved. It’s all about freeing yourself from the fear of judgment, reading as often as you can, and playing with clever anecdotes and asides to add color to your content.