How to Write With a Distinctive Voice

Voice

Let’s face it, most people can’t write their way out of a paper bag. Further, most bloggers are boring writers, and most journalists are so heavily edited that any personality they’ve added to a story has long since been weaned out by the editorial process.

I want to let you in on a secret, though: it’s not really that people are boring, but that too many have been taught that you shouldn’t write the same way you talk. I blame our educational system, actually, with those 5th grade teachers who drilled us on adverbs, pronouns and the minutia of grammar, coupled with too many boring, tedious academic books that we all suffered through while in college.

Instead, I suggest to you that the best way to write clear, coherent, engaging and enjoyable content is to write the way you speak, to recognize your spoken voice and pour it out onto the virtual page of your computer screen and weblog.

How The Heck Do I Learn How To Be Less Formal?

Don’t worry, you can teach yourself to write in a manner consistent with how you speak, but the first step is to give yourself permission to be imperfect. I assure you that it’s okay to have awkward grammatical structure (as I demonstrate in this article!) and poke fun at yourself (as I do with parenthetical remarks in most of my writing, be it my newspaper column, a book or a blog entry). Advanced work includes adding what I call ‘verbal fillers’ like “um”, and “ah” and “hmmm”, but even without that, relaxing and writing with a more informal, less structured style will prove a great benefit to both you and your readers.

Let me give you a quick demonstration of verbal fillers, shall I?

So let’s say that you want to learn how to write like you speak? Well, y’know, if you really listen to dialog, you’ll quickly realize that people, um, you’ll notice that there are all sorts of mistakes… um, imperfections… errors people make when they’re, um, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, how people really talk, versus what we get in print and the insipid, stilted artificial dialog in movies and on TV, um, television.

That’s a bit much on the verbal imperfections scale, I admit, but I hope you can see the point I’m getting at? (and, yes, it’s okay to end sentences with a preposition!) If you want your readers to enjoy your prose, to find what you’re writing compelling and engaging, then I strongly encourage you to experiment with adding imperfections to your next blog entry (or, more likely, simply stop scrubbing them out as you re-read what you’ve initially written).

Being completely informal won’t work for all types of writing, but the general idea that I’m trying to get to here (or “attain”, if you prefer) is that good writers have “a voice”, a distinctive style that both helps them communicate quickly and accurately and helps you understand their thoughts and ideas. There’s no reason in the world why you shouldn’t also have a distinctive voice.

How do I put this in action? I write three blogs, Ask Dave Taylor, which focuses on tech support, gadgets and gizmos, The Business Blog @ Intuitive.com, which is business, management and marketing discussions, and the Attachment Parenting Blog, which is, you guessed it, about parenting and other more personal topics. Fairly diverse, and yet if you compare them, you’ll find that my writing style is remarkably similar across the three.

Here’s a randomly selected sentence from a recent blog entry on the tech site: “Your wording might be slightly different, but you can see that it’s pretty easy to set this up in Gmail.” “Pretty easy”? Surely I shouldn’t say that, I should just say “easy”? Nope, “pretty easy” is a simple example of my voice creeping in: that’s what I’d say if we were talking about it face to face.

My parenting site has an even better example of the informal voice I use:

“Me, I also had my tonsils removed when I was 8, and have almost no memories of it other than how cool it was to be in a hospital, have new books to read (and, doubtless, some comic books too) and be able to eat as much ice cream and drink as much soda as I wanted. Nice! Pain? Drugs? No memories of that stuff. Probably just as well.”

There are many ways that I could have tightened that prose to make it more grammatically correct, but then I’d lose my informal voice. I bet when you read that previous paragraph, you could almost hear my voice in your head saying those words, a far more intimate and effective style of communication than the dry alternative of “When I had my tonsils removed, I recall a hospital bed, new books, ice cream, soda and precious little else.”

Ya Got Any Tricks For Me To Learn This?

What a splendid question! The trick I’ve used to learn how to cultivate and write with a distinctive voice is to read what I write out loud rather than just subvocalize it as I write. Not only is this a great way to learn which sentences are too long or need commas or other breaks so you can breath (a skill that can’t be overrated!) but it also helps you “hear” which of your sentences are awkward and stilted rather than flowing and relaxed.

Let me wrap this up with an exercise for you: next time you write a blog entry, get to the last word then take ten or fifteen minutes to do something completely unrelated, leaving it unpublished. After you’ve had a chance to switch gears, go back to your editing screen, scroll to the top, and read what you’ve written out loud to your cat, the far wall, your cube-mate, whomever. Does it really sound like you talking?

Change, tweak, edit, add imperfections, alter your prose until it sounds at least somewhat similar to your speech patterns and read it out loud again. Iterate on that two or three times then, finally, when you’re ready, push that “publish” button.

Practice this discipline for a few weeks and before you know it you’ll find that you’re finding your writer’s voice, your blog has become more accessible and enjoyable reading, and your readers are becoming loyal fans.

Sweet!

Big Huge Caveat: having encouraged you to be more informal with your writing, I do not suggest that you toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater here. Basic grammatical structure, matching verb tense, spelling and punctuation are all important and do help you communicate effectively. I’m simply encouraging that you play with your prose to create something that’s more reflective of who you are and how you really communicate. Capiche?

About the Author: Dave Taylor has been involved with the Internet since 1980, which makes him a contemporary of Al Gore, more or less. He writes thousands of words a week, most of which are reasonably coherent, he thinks.

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Comments

  1. Great posting Dave. Question – how long do you feel it took you to discover your distinctive voice?

  2. Thanks. That was a really great post. I’m retweeting for sure.

  3. You’ve just echoed the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave me about writing well for the web: read back what you’ve written, out loud.

    Sure, if you work in a crowded office then it might get you a few odd looks. But it lets you instantly identify where your prose jars or sounds unnatural. I highly recommend it.

    I do think that the web is a medium that’s particularly suited to this method. A natural, conversational tone lends itself really well to the online environment, and sometimes I think it doesn’t work so well in printed media.

  4. My blog officially found its “voice” when I realized it was the one I used to speak with every day.

  5. I like the idea of using an informal and conversational voice. It took me a while to change my writing style and I’m still working on it!

  6. Another tip: use voice software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking to write your posts. It’ll make you inherently more conversational :-)

  7. Dave, thanks for this post as it lays out the “voice” issue out in an easy to digest manner. Our little blogging community (I see Writer Dad’s already been here) has been discussing this topic quite a bit lately. I’ve taken a bunch of writing classes and workshops and I don’t recall the subject being covered in such an down to earth manner. Thanks

  8. I’ve worked as a writing coach at newspapers for more than 15 years and frequently assigned reporters this exercise to tighten their copy and find their voice:

    Take the article you’ve written and see how many words you can delete, without changing the meaning. For each word you delete, I’ll give you $1. I didn’t pay them, of course, but the exercise showed them how extraneous words bog down copy and kill the personality in their writing.

    More tips for finding your voice:

    —Use shorter words and short sentences.

    —Vary sentence length within your copy.

    —Don’t be afraid to use one-word sentences.

    —Don’t use a word when writing that you wouldn’t use when speaking.

    —Yes, you may use slang.

    —Avoid cliches.

    —Study good writing. When you see a well-written column or blog post, take the time to dissect it. What, specifically, caught your attention? Experiment with that same technique the next time you write.

    –No more wimpy verbs! You can often replace a wimpy verb followed by a preposition (“get up”) with a stronger verb (“rise”).

    –Write in the active voice. (“The boy put the book on the table,” not “The book was put on the table by the boy.”)

    –Every time you’re tempted to use a form of “is,” stop and look for a stronger verb.

    “Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality into Your Writing” by Les Edgerton explains more about this topic. You can probably find it on Amazon.

    Serious writers should also refer to “The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage” by Theodore Bernstein, a former copy editor at the the New York Times.

  9. I lurvs the informal.

    Especially when it comes to swearing.

    It’s fun to read the Mommy bloggers when _unt Flow comes!
    Makes a sailor blush.
    (_unt = Aunt you pervs.)

  10. Conversational writing is definitely the right style for the web, and realy probaby for most marketing. I’ve seen way too much ‘marketingese’ on business websites, even advertising agency websites!

    This is marketing death, the language is just too abstract and impersonal to touch people.

    On the other hand, it’s not literally true that conversational writing is writing the way you speak. Heck, if I wrote the way I speak, I would be doomed!

    Conversational writing is itself a stylized and to some degree an artificial writing form, even when it comes naturally. I only wish I could talk the way I can write!

    But yes, if you can acquire this conversational tone in your writing, it will serve you well.

  11. Great suggestions! I almost always read back aloud what I have typed, and it pretty much matches my speaking style exactly. There is nothing more boring than a precise writer using all the “big” words in their post. Just be yourself!

  12. There’s some good advice here but I wouldn’t suggest emulating the style in this post! Sorry, but large chunks of it were unintelligible with too many run-on sentences and parentheses. I needed to read several paragraphs twice.

    I think it’s true that most bloggers should channel less of the school essay (particularly avoiding the passive voice) and more of the spoken voice. But people ramble a lot more when they speak and I don’t think that’s what you want from a blog. In my opinion the trick is to be informal AND concise at the same time. Also, people tend to use a lot of cliches when they speak (like babies and bathwater) and I don’t think that works well either – even when you highlight the irony by calling it the ‘proverbial baby’!

    Also re:
    ‘Most journalists are so heavily edited that any personality they’ve added to a story has long since been weaned out by the editorial process.’
    As a journalist, I can tell you this is simply not true. It might be somewhat true for hard news stories – not because they are heavily edited, but because the structure and style is pre-determined and sometimes quite rigid. It’s not at all true for softer news stories (colour stories, picture stories, human interest stories), nor for features or comment pieces.

  13. Thanks… this is a very good advice for a new blogger like me. I’m used to writing business reports. If I “ever” write that way in my blog, I’m sure no one will even read past my first sentence. :)

  14. Thanks for the feedback and commentary, everyone, positive and negative. I will admit, Caitlin, that I tried to have a bit more of a “strong voice” than I usually employ, to help make a point. Nonetheless, one person’s run-on sentence is another person’s brilliant prose, and one person’s decision to completely omit all capitalization is another person’s favorite poet. Go figure. :-)

    The best way to really get a sense of my voice is to go and read a half-dozen of my blog postings, on any of my sites. Then come back and report what you found!

  15. Dave
    I couldn’t agree more. You have encapsulated in one page the core of William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” – great job.
    Regards
    Simon

  16. This was a most useful article. Thanks for posting it!

  17. People try to write like someone or something they are not. Just be yourself and your voice will naturally present itself right tone.

    Craig
    http://www.budgetpulse.com

  18. I wondered about this topic as well, having my own online business. I am informal in what I write about and how I write. I avoid controversy, however.

  19. Great post. I have recently been disassembling the wall of ‘proper’ writing in my own work and the bennifits have been huge.

    Lending a little from Comac McCarthy I have done away with all the standard punctuation associated with dialog and I have found (as others have too) that my dialog reads much more naturaly now. I think this is because I can simply write the words that I hear in my head without mentaly jumping out of the scene to worry about puntuation.

    Free form writing (if done well) is my favorite.

  20. It’s true that a lot of people can’t let themselves write more informally — I am trying to get associates at my ‘day job’ to participate in the company blog, and so far it’s been like pulling teeth — either laziness or self-consciousness is keeping pretty much everyone from helping unless they’re directly ordered to. Not so fun. I’ll keep telling them to just write like they talk, and that we’ll clean up any obvious problems later, but will they listen to me? Of course not!

  21. Hi Dave

    Top tip about taking time between writing and publishing. Thanx. Obvious when you think about it but, hey, it’s those obvious tips that are the ones that stick.

    I have been trying to write more in my own voice lately – as opposed to writing in my “teacher” voice. To be honest…I don’t know if it makes a difference but I am getting a closer to writing from my heart instead of writing from my head. That seems like a good thing.

    Ultimately, we write for our readers as bloggers – otherwise we could just keep unpublished diaries. Our writing style reflects the industry conventions, the type of content (not so cool to use brackets and fillers in scientific/technical writing for example), and cultural context.

    Keep up the good work. Your blog keeps me inspired to blog-on…though I wonder if blog writing sites should come with a health warning that blogging is addictive???

  22. Dave,

    This is too funny. I just wrote a blog post today on this very same subject, right down to the reference to our fifth grade teachers!

    One of my suggestions is to actually record yourself talking about the topic you will be blogging about. Not every time, of course, but in the beginning it gives you a sense of your natural tone/style/word choice, before you start writing.

    I let it all spill out in the first draft, but I do go in and edit and tighten so it’s not full of rambling, boring sentences.

    It’s that unique voice you are looking for. My highest compliment is when someone who hasn’t met me before says, “I feel like I already know you from your blog posts.” Sweet.

  23. I’ve found the same things true for doing videos, just be yourself, warts, flubs, and all, and they usually come out with some personality and fun to them.

  24. We pretty much need to remember to be kind to the reader. Heavy on the word count (extraneous) isn’t always folksy. For me, now, I’ve been beat about the keyboard by editors for ‘editorializing’ and letting my own feelings slip in. Depends on where you are.
    Funny thing…I just sent off a presentation that was done exactly this way. As if I were standing there talking to these folks. One of my peers reamed me about two d–ned words and an incomplete sentence….he wasn’t so perfect grammatically and he was very insensitive to what I, the writer/speaker wanted to get across. “Like, baby, write your own presentation and leave your big fingers off of mine.” I was softer; pointing out that I didn’t commit him or his committee to my presentation as it was personally my expression, send with only my own signature. Haven’t heard from him since…maybe his feelings were hurt. More than mine?

  25. Glad to see someone cheering on the end of the sentence preposition!

  26. That’s a twist. I guess I can write a few posts in that voice and see how it works out. One thing I’m sure, I’d be more comfortable writing in that tone.
    Thanks, Dave.

  27. Wonderful & enlightening post Dave.And thanks for pointing out the fact how many insipid & ultra boring textbooks we have to endure throughout college & into our professional lives.I once developed a remote hope that …there must be a more engaging way to organize & disseminate human knowledge that could potentially be just accessible & possibly absorbent to our fleshy brain.

  28. I like your post David and I agree. A suggestion I may add is to read plays. Get your hands on plays and read, read, read…you can have a deeper understanding of a writer’s voice when it comes to dilaogue in plays.

    A good technique you can use is a tape recorder. Now, I’ve personally experimented with the tape recorder in terms of improvising a characters expression when I write monologues or write in general. It’s good as long as it doesn’t make you self consious. If the tape recorder does, get rid of it because it will prevent you from true expression.

    Also, a keynote here would be to observe life. Lend your ear loudly to the world around you. Listen to how people talk and this will prove to be beneficial when helping the writer fin their own unique voice.

    That’s just my two cents. :)

  29. It’s so true how we have to step back from ourselves and take a second to just relax and let it come out naturally.

    I find that the more you think about the writing process, the more likely you are to make it sound fake…just relax and let it flow.

  30. I have my wife read my blog – she can tell me in 30 seconds flat whether I’ve nailed it or blown it – and she’s quite honest… in a sweet way.

  31. Thank you for this post. I am so glad that someone understands that blogging isn’t all about prose and perfect grammar. If I wanted to sound like a stuffy, old author great, but most people don’t like to read stuffy, old authors.

  32. I strongly agree with this:

    “the best way to write clear, coherent, engaging and enjoyable content is to write the way you speak, to recognize your spoken voice and pour it out onto the virtual page of your computer screen and weblog.”

    It’s probably the best writing advice there is–it enables anyone to more accurately express themself and their distinctive voice and views, regardless of their grasp of grammar or vocabulary.

  33. How long before you knew about your distinctive voice?

  34. Dave, thanks for reminding my to write with my own voice. It’s something I try to do and often go back and rewrite whole articles, having got caught out writing the style of a boring textbook.

    I am also an enthusiatic mis-user of parenthesis, hyphens and start by favourite sentences with But.

  35. I do this!!! It’s a no brainer really – I am not a big blogger, but I would like to be and i find this is the easiest way to write a post…

    Thanks for confirming to that what i am doing is ok…

  36. Hi Dave,

    I gotta say, I do love this post. I’ll tell you how my writing career got started:

    I was asked to write a small equipment review for my employer’s newsletter. I’d never written anything before, but I just sat down and wrote it. I didn’t toil for hours over what went where, and were my participles all danglin’ and everything. I just wrote it.

    I didn’t think too much of it, and then the feedback started rolling in and before I knew it I was getting calls from national newsletters asking to reprint the article and such. (Please don’t think I’m bragging here, I DO know how fortunate I am.)

    From that point on, I’ve always just written how I speak. Depending on the appropriateness, I’m using “gotta” and “kinda” and ’cause. I don’t do it consciously, it’s just that’s what is coming out of my head. How my mind hears it is how I write it.

    Certainly there are things I write that require a more formal tone. In these instances, I still remain conversational, I just take out all of the “gee-whiz” stuff.

    Everyone does have a unique voice. It’s all in your head. Let it flow from your head to your fingers and you are well on the way.

    Cheers!

    George

  37. I’m just using the style of communication that fits the right places for the right audience.

    Like I can go casual for most of the times, to going into a more formal tone that are suited for the more serious topics.

  38. “Dagwood!” ( That’s something I say out loud, emphatically, when I’m feeling silly. My kids always laugh and so I say it a lot). So, Dagwood..Dave, that was a very helpful post. I think I knew I could write like I talk, but you officially gave me permission! It was great that you even gave me permission to end my sentence with a preposition.

  39. Yup. This is exactly what I think as well. For years I felt my writing wasn’t up to par, but now many people tell me they actually enjoy what I write. Whoda thunkit?
    THANKS!

  40. Great post, Dave. Whether it’s a blog, a novel, or killer direct mail copy, keeping a reader engaged is more about voice than grammatical correctness. I’ve always preferred to read and write copy that sounds like a person wrote it, rather than a legal department. Now I wish I could convince my clients of that more often.

  41. Dave, you point to one of my favorite tricks, but I only use it for snark. “Um” can convey a nice degree of sarcasm, as if one has been temporarily rendered speechless by the cluelessness one is describing. Very fun.

    Another nice thing about learning to write with your speaking voice is that it lets you draft faster. I suspect a lot of people are unconsciously “translating” what they would say to what they think they should write. No wonder so many folks get blocked up.

  42. Or you could simply abandon the entire writing process, which, for me, was a deep rabbit hole that discouraged frequent posting, and start vlogging as I have. Much faster, and, um, definitely distinctive.

    Please note though, in order for this to work for you, as it has for me, you must have movie star looks, thick lustrous hair, a megawatt smile, and a well-rehearsed something to say ; )

    http://www.quo-vadis.tv/rickjulian

  43. Outstanding article. I am always afraid to end a sentence with w proposition but thanks to your advise, I am free to do just that. Very good information.

  44. I agree with you completely on writing with a distinctive voice. I taught middle school English for a few years, and when I told students that it was alright to write the way they spoke, they were completely lost. The key is to know your audience. You’re going to write to a potential business prospect differently than you will write to those reading your personal blog. However, I still believe there’s a way to maintain your voice across-the-board. Great post!

  45. I appreciate the advise, and I think focusing on writing the way I speak will be a big step in the right direction.

    However I wonder if there is not another step after that, which will help my readers respond to me.

    Thanks for the post.

    -Phil

  46. I’m a fan of conversation-driven writing. I also like punchy, potent, and impactful points. At the end of the day, experience and passion shine through as long as you don’t block it and you write from what you know.

    Your point about saying it out loud versus just writing it out is a great way to get the rough spots out and find your voice.

  47. What a great article. I love the fact that you are encouraging writers to write freely, but in the right situation. I guess our education taught us not to write with bad grammars, but also to speak elegantly. I have tried this concept before, but it is hard. Sometimes I free write, but then I end up proof-reading what I have written.
    Thanks for the article. It was very entertaining and educational.

  48. Great article, just great!
    Gave me much inspiration while i was writing for one of my customers. (If you wonder, i was writing in Swedish, not English. You don’t have to be worried) ;)

    I have the ambition to become a great english copy though.

  49. This is a great read for journalists and PR professionals. Messages have to be clear and serve a purpose. Everyone has their own writing style and you can see some great examples from journalists in The Wall Street Journal or from publicists at 5WPR in New York who creatively put together story pieces, and serve their purpose to the public.

  50. I think that I just found out why writing has been so difficult for me!

    I’m one of those people that tries to use a “professional voice” on my blog. The truth is, that just makes blogging much harder!

    From now on, I’ll be using these exact tips, Dave. Thanks!

  51. Well, I uh thought that was very useful. You know I am trying to write the same way I would speak. hehe..I am actually talking out loud while typing. try that sometime.

    I think it would make for a very interesting blog.

    Take care!

    Lisa K
    Traffic Coordinator
    http://www.coolmediaplacement.com
    We Drive Traffic! Traffic Drives Results!

  52. I’m a fan of conversation-driven writing. I also like punchy, potent, and impactful points. At the end of the day, experience and passion shine through as long as you don’t block it and you write from what you know.

  53. My favorite book on this topic is “Finding Your Voice: How to put personaltiy in your writing” by Les Edgerton.

    Here’s another tip. Study great writing.

    When you see a blogger or columnist whose writing sounds like casual conversation (which is often good writing), analyze it.

    What words didn’t you expect to see? How long are the sentences? How many one-word phrases? Did the writer use a technique you can adapt to your own writing style?

  54. I think you need to understand the grammar and how to be formulaic. People expect that. Once they’re sure they can depend on you for decent writing it’s time to slip in a few colloquialisms:)

  55. I couldn’t agree more with this. I see journalists and writers giving copy writing advice that is the opposite of this, and I cringe.

  56. A very good tips of writing skills. I experienced when I leave my new post unpublished and back on the editing template for some time to read it again.

    What I found is that I found some grammatical errors and also add some new good ideas that would make my new post good to share to others.

    Thank you very much for sharing this stuff. I will discipline myself to do it again and again and make it a habit.

  57. Great advice. our blog definetly needs this infomation. Sometimes we don’t feel like writting new posts, but its the only way to get better at our talent.

    thanks