What Makes a Voice?


One will find, in reading the scribbled thoughts of most people, that while the thoughts themselves will vary, the voice behind them rings the same. Different people, with different personalities, from different backgrounds, sharing different thoughts entirely and yet somehow, each scribbling could easily be another’s. In other words, they are unremarkable – not for a lack of meaningful content, generally, but rather because they are being expressed with the charisma of an automated messaging machine.

“Hi, my name is ______. Here are some facts, ____, ____, ____. Here are my thoughts on these facts, and the evidence to support these thoughts that I have on these facts: _______.”

What’s the problem with the above method? To the educated person, the answer is probably “nothing at all.” It seems clean-cut, doesn’t it? Hell, it probably looks like the format you used to give that presentation last week. An adult template, to be sure!

This confusion is understandable. After all, this is how we’re taught to express ourselves – how we’ve always been taught. Cut out the chaff, stick to the basics and avoid “fluff” words – that’s how to write! Follow the structure, make an outline; bullet points, people, bullet points! This is the 21st century, for God’s sake – you think we have time to care about how you feel? Intro, body, conclusion. God help you if you entertain a tangent or traffic in the controversial.

And we wonder why people can’t write.

Well, allow me to clue you in on a little secret, dear reader: you’ve been had. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled! Why? Well, I’ll tell you why – because there are no such “rules” when it comes to the written word.

That’s right, my former weary English student, I’m afraid that you’ve been lied to – by your parents, your society, and by each and every philistinic busybody in the academy – throughout your fledgling years. My best guess is that you, along with your doe-eyed grade school colleagues, were hounded, corrected, graded and scolded to the point of abject terror and nihilism, and that your writing style is merely a reflection of this trauma. And good lord, does it reflect it.

Believe me, I’ve read enough of your kind’s papers to know just how and where – and maybe even why – they seem to go completely off the rails by the second paragraph, if not before. And whenever I do, I can almost hear the gears grinding in your head, as you vainfully attempted to contort your thoughts to the essay structure. “Is that a complete sentence? Does it relate to the paragraph’s point and to the main essay? Am I saying too much? Too little? How close am I to 800 words?”

If you find it excruciating to write pieces like this, try reading them. Because somehow, not even the harried voice of your own anxiety gets through with this kind of writing. What seems to happen, instead, is that you over-correct, and do your best to emulate the tone of someone who’s giving a lecture on the history of patent law… on Ambien.

In other words, you revert to what you know, what you’ve been taught since the first time your pen met paper: that less is more. That structure is everything. That things like “style” and “flare” are useless concepts, the romantic undertakings of screenwriters and C students, and should be left to them. “Finding your voice” doesn’t get you a passing grade in freshman English, kid. Get back to your book report on Ethan Frome.

So take it from a former C student when I say: don’t listen to those bores! Next time you write, I dare you to put down whatever thoughts run through your mind, in the very same words that they arrive. Don’t worry about the structure, or your grammar, or about going off on tangents at first. Put the thesaurus away and try writing what’s in your head. In your heart. I promise, those two have more to say than you’ve been led to believe. And keep in mind, we can’t all be Shakespeare – you may not be profound, or even very good. But at least you’ll be original, for once!

And just do that for awhile. Think about the way you think vs. the way you speak vs. the way you write. You want to find your voice? Then work to make those three ways sound the same. When other people can feel your presence on the pages you write, across different pages, different pieces altogether – well, there you are. That’s you. That’s your voice.

Now pick up a pen, fix up a drink, and go out there and find it.

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