How long until you find your authentic writing voice?

And do you need to be able to identify it yourself?

Whether you studied it in school or taught yourself by reading every book you could get your hands on, a creative writer needs one important quality: a voice that's all her own.

Surprise! Just like every other aspect of writing, developing your voice is hard work. And how do you know once you've finally done it, you're right there, and your voice is clear and unique?

Whether you studied it in school or taught yourself by reading every book you could get your hands on, a creative writer needs one important quality: a voice that's all her own. Surprise! Just like every other aspect of writing, developing your voice is tough work.

To start, you work toward finding your voice by:

  • reading writers you respect
  • reading writers you aren't familiar with
  • finding what's in common about the books you like
  • breaking it down further to discover what's similar about the authors' writing
  • describing who you think you are as a writer
  • journaling (just buckle down and do it already; you keep hearing that it's helpful)
  • thinking through who you want your future readers to be
  • being aware of how you feel while writing (Haughty? Phony? Like you're playing make-believe? Or spirited? Invigorated? Pleased?)

To end, you get frustrated by the minutiae of determining your personal writing style -- themes! vocabulary! grammatical choices! -- and give in to another Netflix binge.

In a conversation about writing last week, I repeated that old, cute tale that all stories have already been told, and we're simply retelling them with different character names. Then I got to thinking: Maybe that isn't true, and maybe voice is the reason why. A writer's voice is as unique as a snowflake, a fingerprint, one's DNA (save the case of identical twins). Finding your voice is one argument for a good editor. (I can help!) Yet the fastest way to finding your authentic writing voice on your own is by no longer mimicking the voices of the writers you love.

It feels funny to offer that advice, since I believe in faking it until you make it, meaning to write in the style of others until you understand why their methods work for them and how you'll adapt elements of your 10 faves into your own style.

If your writing life started with you pretending to be ol' so-and-so, you are not alone. Here's what Cheryl Strayed told Longform about the experience of rereading her book Torch for its audiobook:

"I could go line by line and paragraph by paragraph and page by page, and I could point to where I was trying to be Raymond Carver, and where I was trying to be Mary Gaitskill, and where I was trying to be Toni Morrison and Alice Munro and Richard Ford and on and on and on. And this isn't to say that I plagiarized them -- I didn't -- but I respected them and admired them and I was trying to learn from them, and so I was trying to be them. I was trying to find my voice by imitating theirs, in some regard. And in Wild, even though those influences are there in the water, you know, of, they're in my subterranean river as a writer, they're the sort of water that I rise out of; I couldn't point to them on the page. There's not one sentence in Wild that I would say, 'Well there's my Mary Gaitskill sentence.' Every sentence in Wild is a Cheryl Strayed sentence. ... What happened is I relaxed. ... I realized the only person I can be is me, in real life and on the page."

If wading in the veins of your favorite writers makes you feel all sorts of weird (and not just because I said "wading in the veins"), know that it isn't plagiarism. In fact, it's how we learn. Don't skip this step of developing your voice. We've all done it because it works. 

You're already copying the writing community, even if you don't identify your process as such: Are you writing in English? Using letters? Are you creating a personal style guide based on the established guides of others, determining whether you'll use a comma before a conjunction in a series? Do you use nouns and verbs in your sentences, and does the odd fragment make you think, "Whoa, look at me, I'm a writer who uses fragments; this is my voice!" It's been done. I do it all the time -- fragments feed my soul -- but I know I'm not the first!

And that's OK. We share a language and a load of rules about communication before adding any words to the page, and we don't think that truth is plagiarism.

All right, so you've mimicked the greats for years, and you're exhausted -- Where is that authentic writing voice?

There's no "American Idol" for finding your writing voice. Even "American Idol" wasn't the "American Idol" for singers -- most of the performers toiled away for years before the show catapulted them to stardom. You're probably a writer in large part because you love the slow labor of consuming a novel. Embrace that molasses-like flow, and enjoy the journey of your own development.

Here's something I wonder: Is it really so important that you as the writer can identify your own voice?

If you can spot your devices, does that mean that on some level, you're still feigning, or are you simply smart about your work's mechanics?

I know in my own writing, there are two tricks I nearly always employ (I talk about them at the end of this post, if you're interested), and I'm curious if the recognition of that "voice" makes it truly authentic. Perhaps we're doomed to second-guess the validity of our writing until an interloper -- an editor, publisher, friend -- knights us as Writers of the Round Table. (I implore you to find validity within yourself first, friend.)

To build: How sustainable is that feigned voice if your patent techniques are employed over and over? I enjoy Agatha Christie's work, but I don't think she grew much as a writer -- as a storyteller, sure -- from when we first meet Hercule Poirot until Miss Marple's last case.

Said Susan Orlean on Longform (I've been on a podcast binge; here are a few of my other faves):

"The funny thing is you spend the first half of your career wanting desperately to have a voice that's distinctive and recognizable, and then you sort of go to the other side of that, thinking, 'Oh my God, all my stories sound the same.'"

It's simply a question I posit to you as I reflect myself: Does there need to be a due date for finding your voice? And, once you find it, check in that you're pushing to keep evolving that voice.

In other words: Do you ever truly, finally have your one voice, and is the understand of that possession necessary to your writing life?

You might also be interested in:

Want to receive news and blog posts straight to your inbox?

Subscribe here!

As a special gift, you'll receive my free study on the 10 biggest mistakes writers make (and how to fix them).