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Write from your authentic voice

August 11, 2010

Quite awhile ago, I introduced this thing called the Fumbling for Words Writers’ Club. And then life got a little wacky and I found myself treading water just to stay afloat. Before you know it, the Writers’ Club went the way of the dodo bird.

Lately, though, several things have happened that helped convince me to revive that sad little dodo bird. A few people showed up on the Writers’ Club page expressing interest, I got hired to be a bonafide writing teacher, and a couple of friends asked me for writing advice. Okay, so… I get the message… writing advice is one of those things I’m SUPPOSED to share rather than keep it to myself.

The piece of advice that has been closest to my heart lately – the piece that I shared with the friend who asked me for feedback on her blog and the one who asked me to critique the first draft of her memoir – is this…

Write from your authentic voice. 

This is especially true for blogs, memoirs, personal essays, etc. Nobody wants to read your story if there is nothing unique about the voice it’s written in. Nobody wants to read a perfectly polished memoir that has no heart. If you want to write well, you have to be prepared to give away a piece of your heart.

As a professional communicator, I’ve done a lot of writing from other people’s voices (speeches, “quoting” the experts for news releases and articles, etc.), so sometimes it’s hard to remember what my own voice is. That’s part of the reason I blog – to remind myself.

How do you find your authentic voice? Practice, practice, practice. That’s the bottom line. You won’t find it if you don’t commit to it. Shitty first drafts, mediocre second drafts, third, fourth… you get the picture. It takes work. And a healthy dose of blood, sweat, and tears.

Here are a few tips to take with you as you practice:

1. Forget what your grammar school teacher taught you. Well, that’s not entirely true – remember it, but then ignore it. A good writer knows the rules, but is very adept at breaking them. A good grammar teacher would never let you get away with starting a sentence with “but” or “and”, for example. But that’s just what I’m suggesting you do. Your writing has to flow in a natural way that feels right for you, not your grammar school teacher. If grammar makes it feel too formal and stilted, then work around the rules. (I know, I know… it can be HARD to break the rules for those of us who are natural rule-followers! Just ask my daughters about how laborious my text messages are because I actually spell things out and use punctuation!)

2. Say shit if your mouth is full of it. If you like spicy language or clever idioms, use them, damn it! (But not too much, please. They get old after awhile.) Your writing has to reflect a piece of you, so let the reader see the way you would talk if you were telling them a story. Don’t polish too much. (That doesn’t mean “don’t edit”, it just means “don’t take the personality out of it when you’re editing”.)

3. Be as vulnerable as you can be. This is really, really important. If you want to be authentic, you have to admit some of the tough stuff – like what makes you cry, how you feel when you look in the mirror, and how much it hurts when a friend betrays you. It even means showing your dark side – like the petty things you do for revenge, for example. You don’t have to spill every detail (it’s still important to protect people we love, for example), but the reader needs to know that you are REAL and human and that life sucks sometimes. If your writing sounds like your therapist’s analysis of a situation rather than what’s really going on in your gut, rewrite!

4. Throw away all of the flowery words. Oh I KNOW how much you want to show off your big vocabulary and your really smart analysis of a situation, but DON’T. Use simple, accessible language. Give the reader an easy entry point. If they have to run for a dictionary, they’ll probably forget to come back. That doesn’t mean you should assume your readers are stupid (they’re not), but don’t try to act like you’re smarter than they are. Treat it like a conversation and write like you would speak. (And if you’re a professor and you normally use big flowery words, then PLEASE dumb it down for the rest of us!)

5. Pick a reader and write for him/her. Don’t try to please everyone, because that’s when your writing will become bland. It happens to me all the time – when I start to think of the broad range of people who read my blog (friends, family, work colleagues, strangers), I start to freeze up because I get worried how different people will intepret it. If it helps, picture one of your favourite people reading your blog/book/essay. Even better – write for yourself. Write to make your primary reader – YOU – happy, and forget about everyone else. Practice being a good reader and give yourself constructive feedback.

6. Read what you’ve written out loud. There has to be a smooth, even flow to your writing, so pretend you’re at a public reading and read it out loud. If it feels choppy and uneven, rewrite it. If you can’t put your personality and your own intonation into it when you read it, change it. If it sounds like a speech a politician might give, or something your grammar school teacher would have written… ummm… ditch that baby and start over again!

And now for a little of that practice…

Tell a story to your best friend. Think of something that happened yesterday or last week (or make something up) that made you laugh or cry, and then pretend you’re sitting down over a steamy chai latte telling your favourite person all about it. Use the words, phrases, and tone that you would use if you were actually speaking. Be honest, vulnerable, and a little messy. If you want, turn it into a dialogue with your friend’s response as part of it.

If you want to play along, feel free to add your piece to the comments, or put it in your blog and then make sure to tell us about it here so that we can visit.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Katharine permalink
    August 11, 2010 1:07 pm

    Thanks for the advice, Heather. Practicing vulnerability right now as I confess to flubbing in several areas. Practice, practice, practice….another aspect PRACTICE.
    And VOC’s (voice of criticism) reply: “Will you ever get it right?”

  2. August 11, 2010 5:31 pm

    Beautifully put, Heather. It’s so easy to get paralyzed thinking we have to be like someone else, when in fact, the thing that people find interesting about anyone’s writing (or art, or music, or whatever) is whatever is unique and most of all authentic.

    Thanks for a great post.

  3. August 11, 2010 5:59 pm

    Mam. 😉

  4. August 11, 2010 8:17 pm

    I just did this yesterday for the first time. My blog has been stale and boring, because I thought I needed to not offend my readers or they’d leave.

    I got pissy and mean, and everyone said how much they liked it. I may have to do that more often!

  5. August 12, 2010 8:43 am

    Beautiful Heather. Thanks for the advice 🙂 Kathy

  6. August 12, 2010 9:18 am

    It’s funny how I keep reading your blog on days that I’ve just posted something related on my own blog! Yesterday I wrote about my day in great detail, not for a friend, but as part of a blog series I’m doing. I decided to write it in third person to make it more fun. And today I find this post by you! Synchronicity? Maybe. Awesome? Definitely!

    Great advice in this post.

  7. August 14, 2010 6:55 am

    This is some of the BEST writing advice I’ve heard in a long, long time, Heather!! Excellent. Even made me smile…

    So nice to hear how to ‘really’ write. And funny, because people often tell me they *enjoy* my writing — for my newsletter, on my blog, in my emails (I can get long-winded though…) and even on Twitter! They tell me reading my stuff is just like sitting down talking with me. So I love how you mentioned that!

    I’m a stickler about spelling things right (that is, when I take the time to proof-read), and though I do generally use correct grammar (just not too much) — I write just like I speak.

    And if that means incorrect grammar (like beginning a sentence with ‘And’ like I just did) — then so be it!

    I used to think that was ‘wrong’, because my English teachers and the “grammar police” (who I think only existed in my mind) would be frowning upon me. But you’ve confirmed what I’ve always felt in my heart — to write from the heart and write exactly in the tone I would speak to you or anyone else.

    So thanks!

    Btw — I found you via Barbara Sher. Gosh, she has an amazing following and I think those who are part of her ‘tribe’ are special people. So nice to meet to here & look forward to reading more!!


  8. August 15, 2010 5:04 am

    I am a big fan of starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. And (yes, I just did it now) I also need a lot of reminding to put away the fancy words.

    Such a great post, Heather!

  9. Danielle permalink
    October 8, 2010 9:22 am

    Heather, somehow I missed this writers club when you started it. I’ve recently completed two book-length manuscripts (that are nowhere near ready to publish) and have been wondering how to polish them up – most advice for writers out there has done very little to inspire me! I think #3, #5 and #6 in your advice above are just what I needed to be told – thanks!

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