Writers worry that if they write in their own voice, it will somehow minimize the strength of what they have to say. Nothing’s further from the truth.
I didn’t want to be a writer.
I loved reading and had read four digits’ worth of books by the time I was 10. I loved making stuff up and writing it down, especially if it would make people happy. But I didn’t believe I could actually be a writer. Not because I couldn’t express myself, but because I’d end up with my commas in the wrong place.
I was wrong.
I have language and can speak. Because I can speak I can write. The same is true for you.
Unfortunately, many writers struggle to find their voice because they mistakenly believe people are looking for professional, intelligent, or authoritative, when what they really want is friendly and informative. Writers worry that if they write in their own voice, it will somehow minimize the strength of what they have to say. Nothing’s further from the truth. The more you write in your natural voice, the more you will write like you speak. Your language will be clear and your message easier to understand. There are some exceptions in the technical writing field where jargon trumps style and you need to be very specific. This book isn’t for technical writers.
So how do you find your voice?
First, let me say that when you first start out, you’ll probably unintentionally ape some of your favorite writers. This is perfectly natural and so long as you don’t do it intentionally, or try to sound like someone you’re not, don’t worry or fight it. In time, after you’ve written a lot, you will find your own voice. You’ll find confidence in your style and your voice will become as unique as you are.
Your voice is the aggregate of all the minutes of your life that have made you who you are. It’s all you’ve ingested, from other writers’ words to your own experiences. It is the verbal framework for how you see life. It’s what makes you interesting to your audience. Your voice will help you reach first-time readers, turn them into lifelong fans, and give you the base you need to become a full-time writer with a catalog of completed projects.
First you must find it. Which means you need to get writing. And it’s not just writing in your chosen niche, which will help, you find your voice. All writing helps you move forward, no matter the job.
Being a ghostwriter is one of the best things that could have happened to my writing. I’ve been commissioned to write everything from SEO keyword copy, to long sales letters, to fiction, to heartfelt and powerful letters, to autobiographies. I’ve learned and loved it all, and am a better writer because of it. I can write poetry, emails, or blog copy, all in a way that connects with readers because I pour my voice into everything I do.
I write fast because I know it’s the best way to capture my voice, but I always put more “me” into the edit. That’s the magic of writing as you speak, and doing it fast — not giving your brain time to question what your heart is saying. If you write like lightning, your voice is forced to the surface.
Teach yourself to write like you speak and you’ll wield the secret weapon of prolific writers and million-dollar copywriters the world over.
So how do you actually learn to develop an engaging voice? Here’s are my top 5 tips.
1. Write like you speak.
Writing fast is the best way to capture your most natural voice. Done well, it also leaves you with copy that’s easy to edit. Manipulating your thoughts into elegant prose takes a long time. Capturing unedited thoughts as they fly through your mind, however, can yield clean, concise copy, with clarity and voice.
Imagine you’re having a conversation with someone you love. You probably wouldn’t use big words to try and impress or stop to think of the best way to say things, right? That’s the same immediacy you want to harness in your rough draft. The important thing is to get your copy down as quickly and naturally as possible. You’ll use your editing phase to trim away run-on sentences, unnecessary words, or anything else that will dim your delivery.
If you think it will be hard to capture your natural speaking voice, or have no idea what you sound like, record yourself in conversation.
You may feel silly speaking into a microphone for five minutes, but it’s worth it. Take your cell phone (or any recording device) and record a conversation between yourself, and a spouse, good friend, or anyone willing to hear you yammer for a few minutes.
Listen to the recording. What do you sound like? Are your words big, small, or medium? Is it easy to understand your point? Is your tone warm, friendly, conversational?
Do this exercise a few times, trying to balance the way you speak with how you write. Once you can make this second nature, communicating with your audience will be as simple as sitting down and letting your fingers fly.
If you’re still unsure, pretend you’re writing an email to a friend. You don’t get self-conscious when returning an email, right? For most people, emailing a friend is as easy as thinking. That’s the immediacy you want to capture.
Try taking a topic you’d like to write about. Turn your topic into a question and send yourself an email. Answer the email thoroughly, then copy and paste your reply into a doc. Chances are, you’ll have a solid rough draft requiring little editing.
The best part is, if you write the way you speak, it will be easier to get to know your audience.
2. Know your audience.
You’ve heard it before: Know your audience. This is true no matter what you’re writing, but it’s especially true when your purpose is to drive behavior, influence thought, or convert your fans into buyers and lifelong customers.
To enter the conversation-taking place in your customer’s mind, you must be fluent in the story they’re telling themselves. In other words, don’t see your audience as an outsider. Try to see them as they see themselves. For instance, if anyone looked at my friend David a decade ago, they would have seen this loser guy wasting his years behind the counter in a gas station. However, if you were to get inside David’s head, you would see him as he saw himself — a talented guy who just needed a chance to prove himself. If you were going to market to David back then, you wouldn’t pitch to him as you saw him, but rather, how he saw himself.
Getting to know how your readers see themselves takes some time, experience, and observation.
Some questions you should consider:
- What are the roadblocks standing in the way of their successes?
- How can you move those roadblocks and pull them closer to the results they want?
- What are their biggest fears?
- What strangles them in the moment and keeps their heels in the dirt?
Never be afraid to ask your audience questions to get to know them better. They want to be heard and many will be happy to answer. Create a simple survey for your readers using a service like Survey Monkey, then post it to your site or send it to your subscriber list.
If you don’t yet have an audience, that’s okay. Look for another blog in your niche with a large audience, then head to their comment section and read what people are saying. What questions are they asking? What are their concerns? What do they want? Once you have some basic information, you can start building a buyer profile — a specific description of your ideal buyer that will help you speak directly to her.
I’ve opted into more lists than I can count over the last three years. Some are worth my attention because the information is valuable. Sometimes, I want to see what other writers and marketers are doing. It’s amazing, the difference between a good marketer and a great one. Great marketers know how to put their prose into an engaging story. Most of all, great marketers know who they’re speaking to.
A marginal marketer will send an email telling you to “check something out,” that’s little more than an excuse for them to make a quick buck, with little value to reader. There’s a huge disconnect and the subscriber can feel it. Those writers have no idea what their buyers want, or worse, they don’t care. That’s churn and burn business, and the wrong way to do it.
Do your homework. Find out what your audience wants. Know their hopes, dreams and desires; know what they hope to achieve so you can give it to them in a way no one else can.
3. Be funny.
Laughter is contagious. How many times have you found yourself snorting at something simply because your friend was nearing tears? The joy of making others laugh is a core human trait, for both recipient and teller.
When you can make people laugh, you are seen as attractive (even if you’re a tall, lanky writer with a big nose) and a pleasure to be around. Jokes are passed from person to person, which is why if you can use humor well, you’ll wield one of the sharpest writer’s weapons. While many writers don’t think they can be funny, they’re selling themselves short. If you can laugh, you can make others laugh.
Writing humor may not be easy, but it isn’t calculus.
As long as you know the basic laws of all humor, you can make people laugh, too. The trouble with trying to teach funny is that every person has their own rhythm of humor. You don’t teach a person to be funny (unless you work at a clown college, which is less funny, more Stephen King novel waiting to happen), you empower them to unleash their inner hilarity.
Which brings us to our first tenet of humor — not everyone will think you’re funny.
Give up on that idea. Now. Seriously, it won’t happen. Even if you aim for a bland, inoffensive brand of funny, like Bob Hope or Erma Bombeck, somebody will be offended or hate you and declare it loudly on the Internet. The thing is that humor, by its nature, is always poking fun of something painful to someone.
The good news is those two both died rich, so if bland, inoffensive humor is your strong point, you might be in luck!
Don’t be afraid of the easy, obvious joke, but don’t let it be your crutch, either. Easy jokes will make people laugh, but you’ll get the greatest rewards by aiming outside your comfort zone. Keep it simple. Resist the urge to explain. Drop your bon mots and let the people experience the joy of unwrapping them. People enjoy the incongruous and unexpected. If you can zig when they think you’ll zag, or make them think twice to interpret what they’ve read, you’ll succeed in making them laugh.
At its essence, humor is about the unexpected. You set people up to expect one thing, and then deliver something out of left field.
Your humor will depend on your audience, but chances are good that you don’t want to be mean-spirited or tell jokes that offend anyone’s race, sex, or religion. The safest path to humor is self-deprecating. Nobody can get mad at you for making fun of your foibles, right? Well, someone still will, but those people will be mad no matter what you write.
Although most people will say they love dry humor, like that classy stuff on PBS, wild-eyed ranting peppered with plenty of curse words and descriptions of bodily secretions can work well, too.
As long as you hit it out of the park every now and again, people won’t remember all the times you fell flat unless they have serious issues, in which case them not laughing is probably the least of your problems.
Adding a bit of humor to your writing is an effective way to get and keep reader attention and stand out from the crowd. All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to go with the guy or gal who makes them laugh?
It will take a bit of practice and probably some humiliation, but the more you let loose and let your funny flag fly, the easier it gets, and the more you’ll make people laugh. And getting your audience to laugh is a terrific way to get them to love you.
4. Make your readers love you.
You can’t make everyone love you.
This advice is as appropriate in life as it is in writing. The sooner you stop trying, the better off you’ll be at making the ones who matter most fall in love with your words.
While you can’t capture the hearts of everyone, you will need some dedicated fans before your writing dreams can come true. While you can’t soak your copy in Love Potion #9, there are four things you can do to inspire affection from your readers.
- Be consistent and build trust. Everything you do matters, especially in the long run. Never write under the faulty assumption that every project is an island. Everything you do is somehow related, even if it only strips from your legacy. Do your best, no matter what you write or where it’s published, and you will be thought of as a consistent writer, worthy of trust.
- Take the time to do things right. Never miss a deadline, but if you’re late with a blog post, or delay the launch of your eBook because you were tending to excellence, your attention will be rewarded. Always put quality first. In a culture where we have timers at the drive-thru which guarantee the opportunity to deliver high blood pressure and heart disease in under 60 seconds, that type of care is rare and easily noticed.
- Tell a story that connects. Be memorable, and foster a connection with your audience through honest storytelling. There is only one you and no one tells your story better. Whatever your personal narrative, find a way to make it relate to your readers and they will naturally relate to you. Look life’s regrets in the eye and let your audience see you swallow fear in the face of your online adventure. Brilliant writing is sometimes as simple as being able to leave a genuine lasting impression in the memories of your readers.
- Talk to one reader. When writing blog posts, address a single reader. I’m not saying to call one particular reader out by name and dedicate your post to that person. Instead of addressing plural readers, address them in the singular. For example, instead of writing, “I couldn’t wait to share this with you all” write, “I couldn’t wait to share this with you.” It’s a minor distinction, but it works to bring your readers closer.
Be consistent, take your time, tell a story that connects, address your reader personally, and put out superb product. Your readers will love you and you will reap the reward.
5. Put Yourself in Everything You Do
Because a writing career harbors the promise of unlimited potential, the Internet is bloated with writers in search of opportunity. The pay is solid, the flexibility fantastic, and (let’s face it) the commute is about as good as it gets. How are you supposed to compete against the flood of freelancers on Upwork, Guru, and Constant Content, many of whom are willing to work for rates that would barely pay the rent on a fifth-floor Bangalore walkup?
The problem with a lot of online writers is that too many are singing in the same key. You want more, so you’re going to have to do more to get it.
Whether you’re building your brand or looking for work, the only way to stand out is to distinguish yourself from the crowd.
You don’t necessarily need to be a better writer. The Internet is brimming with remarkably talented (and broke) wordsmiths. You must be memorable.
I have a simple tactic I learned from my decade running a flower shop. When you create a bouquet, you must finish it off before handing it across the counter. A completed bouquet needs a beautiful ribbon to tie it together, but if you give it a focal point striking enough to catch the customer’s breath, they’ll come back again and again.
The same hold trues for writing.
Whenever possible, take the time to include at least one line that sets you apart from every other writer out there; one sentence that could only come from you. That sentence, that final “bow on the bouquet,” will draw your readers toward you.
Most writers won’t take the extra time to really make their copy shine. They’re rushed, they take shortcuts, and it shows. You can’t compete with the world, it’s way too big. Besides, why would you ever want to be anyone other than yourself? You can compete with every writer your clients have worked with before you, or the other blogs too tired to inspire, or the mess of novels in your genre.
If you’re willing to take the time to tie a bow around your copy, you’ll stand head and shoulders above the rest.