Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

When I was a high school senior, I crushed hard on a pair of silver Chucks in our mall’s shoe store.  Those sneakers sparkled under the fluorescents like they were calling to my punk, grunge-girl heart. I can’t tell you how much they cost, only that they cost more than I could afford. 
 
For months, I visited them and daydreamed about the compliments I’d get and how well they’d go with my thrift-store skirts—especially the ones I called my granny camo. 
 
I still think those Chucks are pretty rad, but I’m now at an age where my shoes need arches. 
 
Some of you might be thinking, silver Chucks, really?
 
If you are, that’s great! Style—whether it’s in clothing or writing—is extremely personal. 
 
In writing, style involves word choice, sentence structure, and rhythm. While authenticitytruth, and perspective require you to explore something inside of yourself, style is definitely a skill learned over time.   
 
When I think of writing style, three authors come to mind.
 
First, there’s twentieth-century poet e.e. cummings, who wrote 

may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she
 
Cummings refused to capitalize anything, including the letter I, in hopes of decreasing the importance of the self in his work. 
 
Then there’s the Hemmingway/Faulkner debate. Faulkner famously wrote a 1,288-word run-on sentence in Absalom, Absalom! Hemmingway’s spartan style is frequently associated with a six-word story—For sale: baby shoes, never worn—that may not actually be his. 

While modern audiences tend to prefer leaner writing (check out the Hemmingway Editor App) you don’t have to become a Hemmingway disciple. You do need to understand your style. 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Scroll through your files and select a piece of writing that exemplifies your best work. Print a hard copy. 
 
Next, record yourself reading the piece out loud. 
 
Close your eyes and play the recording. Listen to the rhythm of your sentences. Do they gallop, trot along, or lazily amble by? Do certain sounds stand out? 
 
Now, play the recording while you follow along with your hard copy. What do you notice about the length of your sentences and your use of white space? What on the page enhances your story? 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Choose three authors you admire. Copy a few paragraphs of their work by hand. Handwriting each word will help you get a feel for the writing and the length of the writer’s sentences. 
 
Record yourself reading this work. Close your eyes and listen to your recording. What do you notice? 
 
Listen back again while following along with your hard copy. See anything else? 
 
Jot down your answers and reflect on what they tell you about your own writing style. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 
 
Consider writing some of your prose in a favorite author’s style to see how it feels. Then try another author. Notice what feels authentic. Ditch anything that doesn’t seem to work. Then practice, practice, practice your art form.  
 
While I hope you’ll focus largely on writers in your genre, be sure to check out On Writing Well by William Zinsser. And, while you’re at it, subscribe to Poetry Daily and see how poets approach this work.
 
Which authors do you turn to when learning about style? Send me their names. I’d love to know, and your answer might inspire someone else. 

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Do you know what color glasses you’re wearing when you sit down to write? 

Not sure? 

For a long time, I struggled with this too. 
 
In writing, we approach our stories from a particular angle that’s driven by our authentic self. The details you capture or exclude create a tone your writing projects–like glasses with a colored lens. That tone could be darkly humorous, serious, or cynical. 
 
Tone is the attitude we take in our writing. It’s closely aligned with perspective. 
 
To understand perspective, and its relationship to tone, try this exercise with a partner: 

  • Take a picture of a house in your neighborhood and share it with your partner. 
  • Set a timer for five minutes and write descriptions of that house. 
  • Next, describe the house as if you’re standing next to a new lover. 
  • Finally, describe the house as if you’re a soldier who’s just returned from battle.  

 
I bet each description focuses on a slightly different aspect of the house. Those variations come from the character’s lens. Now, notice the similarities between the three descriptions. Those similarities arise from your voice as a writer. The emotional feel of those details is your tone. 

Now, share your descriptions with your partner. 
 
How does their lens compare to yours? 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Return to the social media posts I asked you to save. Weed out the cat and kid pictures. Find the ones where you wrote something that truly represents you. Notice the similarities. Are they funny, impassioned, or serious? 
 
That general tone is an element of the real you. 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Identify the authors on your bookshelf whose lens is similar to your own. If nothing sticks out, drop by your local independent bookstore and ask the salesclerk for some recommendations. As you read selected works, underline the sentences that have the most voice. Write a few down. Journal about why this author’s voice works well. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 

Now that you have a sense of your lens, figure out what you need to do harness its power. Study the masters, read craft articles, and then write, write, write. 
 
What tone patterns did you notice in your social media posts? Send me an email so I can hear what you learned.   

Looking for more voice lessons? 

Voice Lesson One: The Courage to Be True

Voice Lesson Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

I spent the summer of 1984 being my own twin cousin. I was ten. My mom had just chopped my long hair into a shoulder-length bob.

After crying about my uneven bangs, I put on a pair of white plastic sunglasses, stuffed three sticks of Doublemint gum into my mouth, and introduced myself as twin cousin Jennifer from Oswego. 

A few kids were skeptical of my twin-cousin claims, but I answered their questions about my likes (swearing, climbing apple trees, reading Cosmo) and dislikes (playing with sticks, messing with ants, and answering questions).

When they asked how we could be twins if we didn’t have the same mother, I told them our mothers shared a mother and that was pretty much the same thing. 

Without the Internet to debunk my theory, kids agreed to call me Jennifer. 

In becoming someone else, I began to see who I really was. 

Your first voice lesson was about finding your courage

Here’s lesson number two: To find your voice, you have to know who you are. 

Some people think having a voice means turning on the sass, revealing your master’s in slang, or dispensing f-bombs like they’re PEZ candy. Others think you need to be gonzo like Hunter S. Thompson and tell counter-culture stories in strange accents. 

If you’re not gonzo or sassy, trying to write as if you are is like wearing a mask to work. There will be weird looks. When you try to convince someone your mask’s rhino horn is actually part of your forehead, someone will call bullshit. 

Be yourself instead.

Here’s your inner work: 

Exercise #1: What word do you use to describe that piece of furniture in your living room? Couch? Sofa? Davenport? Divan? Love seat? Rumpus Machine? 

There’s no shame in being a couch or sofa person. If you say divan or rumpus machinen, own it. Just begin to notice what language you naturally use. 

Exercise #2: Flip through your real or virtual photo albums. Pay attention to your style. While some fashion choices, like jelly sandals or MC Hammer pants, might have changed, I bet a few things remain the same. Perhaps it’s the cut of your clothes or your color palette. That something that remains the same is likely an aspect of your authentic self. 

Exercise #3: Make a list of adjectives that describe you. 

Exercise #4: Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • Who am I?
  • What are my passions?
  • How do I see the world?
  • If I could follow my bliss, what would that look like? 

 
Here’s your outer work: 

Exercise #1: Make a list of 3 or 4 animals that could represent you. Share the list with a group of friends and ask them which one they’d choose and why. Compare their answers to the adjectives you’ve chosen for yourself. 

Exercise #2: Scroll through your social media posts. Find the ones you’ve written that have the most likes. Copy and paste these posts into a document. Note which ones seem like they represent your authentic voice. We’ll come back to this document later in the month. 

Here’s your writing work: 

Author and entrepreneur Marie Forleo believes writing it rude will help you find your voice. Here’s what she means. Write your shitty first draft as if no one is going to read it. Pump it full of opinions and emotions. Say it with feeling and don’t worry about who’ll get hurt. 

In that passionate place, you’re most likely to write from your authentic voice. Underline the sentences that truly communicate your message, then revise, revise, revise to get the rest right.

When you revise, leave your voice in but take the rude out. As Marie says, the best writing comes from a place of both passion and compassion. 
 
Authenticity is a journey, not a destination. And. it’s important because you’re important. 

Take it from Martha Graham:
 

“There’s a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” 

 
If you did the animal exercise, send me an email and let me know which one your friends chose. I’d love to know. 

Voice Lesson Number One: Have The Courage To Be True

Voice Lesson Number One: Have The Courage To Be True

I can’t breathe. 
 
These were some of the last words spoken by George Floyd. Sadly, he’s not the only black man to have said them. 
 
My feelings about the incident are clear. Black lives matter. Institutional racism is a serious problem that must be addressed. Together, we can end these senseless deaths. 
 
When I heard about Floyd’s death, I wanted to say something that honors the pain of my black and brown friends and family members while also admitting a hard truth: my privilege is part of the problem. 
 
Actually, admitting my white privilege is easy for me. 
 
What’s difficult to admit is how the shame behind my privilege sometimes makes it difficult to do the work required to end racism. 
 
In her podcast, “How to Write a Kickass Essay,” Ann Hood says we should not just write about what keeps us up at night, but “Always say the hardest thing—the thing you don’t even know you feel.” 
 
Expressing the thing you don’t even know you feel is the essence of any great piece of writing. 
 
These deep truths are often discovered through the body. We write them and our throats tighten, our chests ache, or tears form in our eyes. 
 
Hard truths resonate with readers. To write them takes courage.  
 
Here’s your first voice lesson: To cultivate truth in your voice, you need to find the courage to: 

  • Dig a little deeper
  • Let go of being likable
  • Develop a willingness to be vulnerable 
  • Make friends with your fears 
  • Say your truth your way 

Here’s your inner work. 
 
Courage comes from the Latin word for heart. To write with courage is to write from the heart.  
 
Feedback can help you dive below the superficial points in a writing project. Insights that sting or raise your hackles can signal there’s more to explore. If you get uncomfortable feedback, take a break and practice self-care. When you’re feeling better, return to the work and journal about whether the reader has a point and why you might be struggling to hear their message.
 
As you do this, let go of likeability. Attempting to writing for everyone leads to bland work that’s likely to be ignored. Instead, have the courage to speak your truth. 
 
Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” The deepest truths fit this definition. Treat them with the utmost respect and refuse to give them away for cheap reasons like platform building or going viral. Instead of overexposing yourself by letting it all hang out on the page, make sure your vulnerability has a clear purpose. 
 
If you plan to publish a vulnerable piece, ask yourself the following questions
 
How does publishing this work serve my audience? 
Does it enlighten, connect, or comfort readers? 
Does it add to an important conversation? 
 
Writer Dorothy Bernard says, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” The most courageous people are not fearless, they are people who walk with their fears. If you want to create a strong, powerful voice, befriend your fears. 
 
As you do this inner work, connect with other writers who can support your growth
 
Once you’ve articulated that hardest thing, find your way of saying it. Your way comes from a place of authenticity, which is lesson number two. 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Re-read something by an author you admire. Identify the hard truths in their stories. Ask yourself what it might take for you to share something similar. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 
 
Set a timer for ten minutes. Write about a topic related to your work in progress. 
 
Pause and then write if I were to go a little deeper.
 
Set a timer for five minutes and keep going. 
 
When the bell rings, write I don’t want to write about . . . 
 
Write for ten more minutes. Then practice self-care. 
 
And, if you’re looking for ways to become a better ally to the black community, here are a few educational resources: 

 
Here are some additional things you can do:  

  • Read works by authors of color and sharing them on social media.
  • Support black businesses in your area
  • Donate money to charities that support the interests and wellbeing of people of color. 

If we use our voices courageously, we can become the change we want to see in this world. 
 
What helps you have courage? Send me an email. I’d really like to know. 

Voice Lessons

Voice Lessons

In my late twenties, I taught middle school. Like many teachers, I suffered from an annual case of laryngitis. My first bout appeared on the Monday after Christmas break. Reluctant to take more time off, I tried to muscle through the illness. Two days in, I lost my voice. The pain was so bad I couldn’t even whisper.  
 
Six months ago, I met a writer who’d stopped writing. “I’ve got nothing to say,” she said, tracing circles in her empty notebook. “I mean, who am I to write about X important topic? Sure, I have thoughts, but no one wants to hear from me. Besides, I’ll probably get it wrong.” 
 
I nodded, having felt that way before. But as I watched this talented, charismatic writer sell herself short, all I could think of was that terrible case of laryngitis. 
 
She’d lost her writing voice, and it was stifling her creativity. 
 
Do you know what I mean by voice? 
 
Have setbacks, a lack of confidence, or recent events silenced you, or kept you from forming one? 
 
This month, I’m going to share my four pillars of voice and how you can use them to write your very best work. 
 
Let’s start with the basics.
 
According to agent Rachel Gardner, voice is “the expression of you on the page.” It’s the quality of writing that lets you pick a Mary Karr memoir or a Stephen King novel from a lineup of manuscripts. 
 
Some people believe voice is an ineffable quality inherent in the writer—the je ne sais quoi that makes your work distinctly yours. Most writers work their buns off to cultivate that je ne sais quoi. 
 
Truly finding and developing one requires introspection and investigation into who you are, what (and how) you write, and which writers you admire. Most importantly, it requires you to write, write, and then write some more.  
 
Your first lesson is about courage. 

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