How to find your authentic voice: 5 tips to discover your own unique writing style
A friend of mine recently asked me a really great question. It went something like this:
“I write a lot. But I feel like I haven’t found my authentic voice yet.
When I write, it often comes out sounding like other people. It doesn’t really feel like me.
How do I find my true voice? Any tips?”
I’ve been thinking about this question and, now that I’ve had time to reflect on it, thought I would answer it here.
If you’ve ever wondered whether your writing is really “authentic”, or if you’re struggling to find your true voice or style, here are my suggestions.
Tip #1: Accept that “youness” is not something you can hack.
Remember when you were a little kid and somebody (most likely your mom) told you to “just be yourself”?
And remember how that advice seemed utterly useless?
It’s great advice, of course. Being yourself is the best way to go through life. But that assumes, of course, that you know who “yourself” is.
And knowing yourself is something you really only get by living.
Writing is the same. Just like you can’t skip over growing up, you can’t skip over the time and experience required to find your voice.
So don’t try to jump to the end of the book. Take your time. Write the chapters one by one.
Tip #2: Reserve some writing solely for yourself.
Most of us write so that we can be read.
Whether it’s blogs, or novels, or marketing copy, the end goal is usually to have somebody else read it. (This is especially true if you’re a professional writer.)
But if you’re always writing for other people, your own voice is bound to get lost in the shuffle.
So whether you’re a seasoned pro or a brand-new beginner, I encourage you to do some writing that is just for you.
How do you do that? Have a journal or notebook that no one else is going to see. Make time in your day, even if it’s just 10 minutes, to write freely, uncensored, with no one looking over your shoulder.
Make this a regular practice. If not daily, as close as you can get.
Try not to judge yourself in this writing space. You want to give yourself room for as much honesty, experimentation and free-range creativity you can muster.
Tip #3: Read your stuff.
Look back every so often and take stock of what you’ve written. What’s in your journal? What does a year’s worth of blog posts or newsletters look like? Consider any professional writing you’ve done as well as the personal.
The point of this is not to judge. It’s not an assessment or critique. Rather, it’s to investigate.
For example, ask yourself:
What are your favourite pieces of writing?
Which ones feel natural or authentic?
Which ones don’t?
When I look back at my own writing over the course of a year, I can usually find a couple pieces that feel too forced (likely they were things I thought I “should” write), and a couple pieces that are my favourites (they’re usually ones that I wrote most naturally, without over-thinking).
This review exercise can give you insight into your “authentic” voice. It may give you some ideas about what types of writing or creative activities to lean into, and which to do less of. And it may inspire you to do more of the things that help “you” come out in your writing.
Tip #4: Read all the things.
Remember that movie Uncle Buck, with John Candy?
It’s a great movie. It also contains a lot of swearing.
When it first came out, I watched it on VHS with my young cousin, who played with his Legos throughout. When the movie he was finished, I asked him what he was doing, as he moved his Legos from one spot to another.
Echoing the spicy new language he’d heard in the movie, my innocent young cousin answered, “I’m just going to move this shit over here.”
This is what happens when we listen and read. We naturally pick up the words, along with the overall style and flow. In other words, read a lot of one kind of writing, and you’re bound to mimic it, even if you don’t mean to.
As such, reading is probably the best way to improve your writing, second only to practicing writing itself. At the same time, if you don’t want to fall into the trap of accidentally absorbing someone else’s voice, mix it up. Read all kinds of writing, both fiction and non-fiction. And read in print sometimes; it changes how you absorb and interact with the work.
Actively and deliberately expand your literary and creative vocabulary.
Build an extensive inner library of words and ideas. The more diversity you have, the less likely you are to get stuck in somebody else’s style.
Tip #5 Be all your selves.
I love this quote by Joss Whedon:
“Don’t just be yourself. Be all your selves.”
Here’s the thing: there is not one “authentic” you. Not one authentic voice. Not one authentic story.
We don’t just have one true story of our lives, we have many.
We don’t just have one truth, we have many contradictory truths, lies, and somewhere-in-betweens that make us who we are.
We don’t just have one self to be, we have identities that are unfolding, evolving and surprising us all the time.
Trying to write with one “authentic voice” sounds like trying to pigeonhole yourself.
It sounds a lot like judgement.
So my final piece of advice is to give yourself freedom to write, in as many different voices and styles as you wish.
Experiment. Be bold and saucy and salty one day. Write tidily and refined the next.
Write with self-indulgent gusto once in a while. Edit with prudence later.
Hold back sometimes. Overdo it others. Get angry on the paper; then get forgiving.
Whoever you need to be, as a writer, in this moment, just be it. Say what you’ve got to say, write what you’ve got to write.
Take this moment and write like you.
Whoever you happen to be right now.