Deb Dana on Finding Your Voice

When it comes to writing advice, a few pithy phrases make the rounds again and again. Let me know if you’ve heard any of these before:

“Kill your darlings.”

“Show, don’t tell.”

“Write what you know.”

“Writing is rewriting.”

“Raise the stakes.”

Any of those sound familiar? Thought so. But just because advice is well-worn doesn’t make it any less useful. I’ve followed all of those bits of advice at one time or another, and my writing has been better for it.

The piece of advice I’ve found most helpful in my writing career is another one of those oft-quoted tropes and, in my opinion at least, is something all writers

must do:

“Find your voice.”

Sounds obvious, right? I mean, duh. Whose voice are you going to find? Big Bird’s?

But for many aspiring writers, “voice” can be elusive. You want to be the next Hemingway. Or Hornby. Or Atwood. And so you sit down and start to mimic those writers — their cadence, their themes, their tone. But soon you get frustrated because…well, something isn’t quite working.

I’ll tell you what isn’t working: your voice — or rather your lack thereof. Because guess what? You aren’t going to be the next any of those people. You are going to be the first YOU, and to do that, you need to find your voice, a voice that could not belong to any other author past or present because it is yours. When I stopped worrying about sounding a certain way so that professors and readers would take me seriously, I started sounding like ME, and when that happened, the writing started flowing in chatty, unrestrained gushes.

I don’t mean to suggest that once I found my voice, a novel rolled off my fingertips in a matter of days. But once I let my writing sound like me, I didn’t have to worry about finding the right words and instead could focus on telling the right story.

What’s your take on “voice”? Did you find yours right away or did it take time?

8 Replies to “Deb Dana on Finding Your Voice”

  1. I think the only way to find your voice is to write, write, write, and then write some more. Pour out the words until it can’t help but shine through.

    1. I’ve always wished I was someone who kept a journal. I guess I look at my emails as pseudo journal installments — especially ones to my mom or dearest friends.

  2. I came to it backwards I guess. I just wrote. And then I realized what it was. And I have to not pay attention to it to keep it there. Does that make any sense? If I try too hard, my voice changes.

    1. This TOTALLY makes sense — and is how I approach it, too. If you think about voice, your head gets in the way. You just need to write and let the voice come through.

  3. I found my voice early, mostly because I’d learned the lesson from law practice. When I started practicing law (almost 20 years ago, as scary as that is to contemplate) I tried to make my documents “sound like a lawyer.” Epic fail. I sounded stodgy, stilted, and archaic – and the partners at my first law firm told me so. Back to the drawing board. After a couple of years, I learned to relax and focus on the content – not the way it sounded – and bingo! Voice! Even in a legal document.

    When I started focusing on my fiction, I’d already learned to concentrate on the content rather than the tone, so my natural voice came through fairly quickly. Competence at writing? Yeah, that took another decade or so.

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