To be heard above the crowd, a writer needs to establish their voice

Typewriter at mic It’s time once again for my weekly Nickel’s Worth on Writing, when I utilize my 15 years as a columnist to offer writing wisdom some of today’s most successful authors have called “Full of…words,” “Utterly…complete,” and “Total…advice…”

Or as Stephen King described, “The place I go to scare myself.”

But enough accolades already!

For only the second time in NWOW history, this week’s offering is a re-post. The reason has nothing to do with laziness or lack of inspiration, and everything to do with answering a question that many new followers have been asking since last week’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing:

Have you ever considered plumbing as an occupation?

As I consider that suggestion, I thought I’d answer the second most frequently asked question since last week’s NWOW post, which was:

You have a unique writing style. How do I avoid it?

So let us begin…

There are nearly 8 billion people inhabiting the earth. Most are capable of stringing together a sequence of words in order to communicate an idea or feeling. Occasionally, this even includes lawyers.

At this very moment, if you were to log on to any social network, you’d find thousands of people writing about any number of topics, including vacations, sex, parenting, mental illness…

Hmmm. Looking back over that last sequence, I see a definite pattern.

Anyway, with all of these people writing, what determines the difference between someone who writes and a writer?

There really is a difference and, as with any art form, deciding between “good” and “poor” writing comes down to personal taste and interpretation. Or possibly an interpreter if you’re reading Ozzy Osbourne’s biography.

Regardless, there is one thing that truly defines a writer:

Their Voice.

Before we get into the art of recognizing and establishing a writer’s voice, I need to post the following Disclaimer:

I do not pretend to know anything about art.

That said, I have great respect for any artist whose work can provoke me into seeing or understanding something in a different way. For example, I once saw an art piece called “Eternal Hunger” which, cleverly, was an empty room with a single pea glued to the center of the floor. I remember standing there in the doorway and quietly reflecting to myself:

I’ll probably never like peas.

As absurd as that exhibit may sound, I remember it because the artist’s presentation — his voice — was confident and unique.

Did it change how I feel about peas?

No.

Am I still trying to swallow a pea my mom made me eat in 1972?

At this very moment.

But writers are just like painters or sculptors; they have at their disposal tools to help them create and communicate in ways which — depending on how they use their tools and in what sequence — will resonate their own unique voice.

Here are three of the most important tools in establishing a writer’s voice:

• Timing
• Truthfulness
• Relativity

Before we get started, I must post a Second Disclaimer:

If you are William Hung, there is nothing I can offer that will improve your voice in any shape or form, including written.

Now that we have established that important point, let us begin with Timing.

In my mind, this is probably the most important and frequently wielded tool for a writer, and the most complex. That’s because so many devices play a role in timing, including punctuation, paragraph structure, word usage and even font choice.

As a humor columnist, I often want to take the reader by surprise so that they don’t see the punch line coming, much like a bullfighter who uses his cape to entrance the bull while, simultaneously, hiding the stain in the seat of his tight pants.

See?

Other times, punctuation can offer the pause, beat or — as with the long dash — a visual distraction to hide the fact I’ve forgotten my point.

Oh yes… Timing. It can also be used to underscore a dramatic moment, or build tension and anticipation toward a climactic revelation your reader can’t get to fast enough, such as our next topic:

Truthfulness.

More than any time in history, readers are astute at recognizing a false tone in writing. Reality TV shows, blogs and instant access to information have, to a certain degree, trained readers to be skeptics, making your job of building a connection with the reader particularly crucial. This is especially true for columnists and short fiction writers who, regardless of their height, must build that connection within the first few paragraphs.

Being truthful is one of the fastest ways to build that connection.

This has less to do revealing things about yourself, and more to do with being honest. That said, if you’re writing about how you dislike making other people’s sandwiches while working at the deli, then Yes — go ahead and reveal that you secretly lick all the mayonaise off the knife between spreads.

Not that I would ever do that.

I’m just saying…

Writing with an element of truth about yourself, or your character, builds trust with the reader and can make an immediate connection, especially if they recognize something in themselves.

Being truthful also means doing your homework by educating yourself before you write about it. For example, I recently wrote a column about the first marriage proposal in space. Before writing about that subject, or making any predictions about the first wedding in space or cosmic marriage counselor, I took the time to become an astronaut at NASA.

OK, but I did do my research and discovered that I would not attend any wedding in space because the food would be really terrible. Plus, throwing rice or birdseed, while a popular tradition, would mean spending the entire day surrounded by clouds of rice and seeds floating in zero gravity.

Write about what you know. Start with yourself and educate yourself about the rest so that readers will trust you.

The third tool is really an extension of Trust, and that’s Relativity. Even if you are already knowledgeable or experienced on a subject, you will lose your reader if they can’t relate. This includes writing about personal experience; if the reader doesn’t feel included, it won’t matter how wacky “Aunt Frita” is if your reader doesn’t know “Aunt Frita” is actually a mule.

I realize that’s a bit of an overstatement, especially since I don’t know “Aunt Frita” either, but without carefully laying the foundation in a way that includes your reader, they will likely sit down and refuse to follow.

To be honest, each one of these subjects could have their own column. However, I hope I’ve at least given you enough to start with so that you’ll recognize these tools as you read others’ writing.

As always, feel free to contact me with questions by email, posting your question here, or by participating in my discussion forum.

Unless you are William Hung.

(Next week’s topic: Like bowel movements, a writing routine is crucial)

(Ned is a syndicated columnist for News Media Corporation. His first book, ‘Humor at the Speed of Life,’ will be released in December from Port Hole Books. You can write to Ned at nhickson@thesiuslawnews.com, or at Siuslaw News, P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore 97439)

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33 thoughts on “To be heard above the crowd, a writer needs to establish their voice

  1. This is my favorite of your posts. . . ever. And that’s saying something, because I like all of your posts.

    Truthfulness, of “authenticity,” or integrity, however that might be labeled, is crucial. We’re all influenced by what we read and subconsciously work those things into our own writing, just as we adopt elements of personality or mannerisms of those we admire.

    As a former English teacher, I pick up on voice too easily. I once tried to grade some practice assessments blindly, to simulate an objective state-appointed evaluator’s view, and I couldn’t do it. A couple of sentences into each essay, I knew which of my students was the writer.

    I also have a sense when someone’s writing isn’t authentic and it bugs the bejeebers out of me. But that’s ok. Who needs bejeebers?

    Great, great, great post!

    • Wow, thank you so much. It’s also one of my favorite posts because I think the techniques used to establish voice are the most difficult and interesting.

      By the way, your experiment is a great example of the power of voice, and how some writers are just born with it while others have to develop it over time. You remind me of one of the most influential English teachers I had in in high school. She flunked me, and I deserved it, but she taught me the importance of honesty in writing.

      Cheers to you both 😉

      And while I have no place for bejeebers, beerjeepers is a different story…

      Again, many thanks!

  2. You didn’t cover self deprecation! Great post and better yet, great recommendations that should help any writer to assess their voice and their potential to reach or impact an audience. I compare your tools to the vanishing point artists place on their canvass to orient themselves and subsequently those who will view their finished work.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, it explains a lot of things many of us employ by nature. Though I was a wee bit offended by your opinion of the dash because I’m totally addicted to it– not just because I lose my… um, wait, oh yeah– my train of thought.

  4. If it comes down to personal taste please ask a cannibal for their oppinion…. they are
    preeminently more qualified to answer. Even allowing for varying cooking styles….. hey the universe just tilted ! The spell checker did not insist on hyphenating preeminently ! This is a bad omen…. gotta go ( the door slams, great gobs of classic news posts slide to the newsroom floor and the fading sound of running feet )

    • Thank you so much. I’ve been reading your last few posts, which stirred feeling from my first marriage when my wife told me on my 40th birthday she was moving on to start her own life. I’ll send money for the kids and be involved as much as I can.

      You refer to yourself a “she-devil” at times, but the fact that you feel so deeply about everyone in this situation is proof to the contrary. Try to remember that as you sift through this painful, necessary process.

      In the meantime, I’ll do my best from here to offer a smile and a laugh when you need one.

  5. Definitely cough up a post on each one of those, mate, this is like not paying to go University or something. Anyway, I’m off to find my voice, it’s around here somewhere…

  6. Thanks for this blog Ned! I’m 17 and I’m trying to find my voice. It’s a bit hoarse right now—plus I sometimes get it mixed up with that other voice in my head that’s always vying for attention.

  7. Pingback: Remembering a writing mentor who probably never knew it | Ned's Blog

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