February 16, 2021
Voice might seem like an all or nothing proposition. Either you have it, or you don’t. Fortunately for all writers, that’s the farthest thing from the truth. Yes, some voices are stronger right out of the gate, but as all writers discover, “voice” is a skill that can be pumped, primed, and polished just like any other challenging and rewarding craft.
Ready to get to work? Here are my six tips that will help you pump, prime, and polish your writing voice.
Tip #1: Sit Down and Write
I know. Sitting down and writing might seem a little obvious. Okay, very obvious. But it’s amazing how many other things you can choose to do instead of writing, while secretly holding out hope that you’ll start writing when conditions are right, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, the writing muse will descend softly on your shoulder. However, if you want to build your writing voice, there’s no substitute for sitting down, curling your fingers over the keyboard, and writing. It’s a must. As you exercise your hands and your brain, you’ll formulate what you want to say and words will fill the page.
Tip #2: Read, Read, Read
When you’re not writing—read! In my mind, it’s the single greatest thing a hopeful writer can do. As you read books and step into their literary realms, you’ll absorb rhythm, timing, vocabulary, tone, and yes, voice. Snarky voices. Superficial, chatty voices. Bold, unapologetic voices. Mournful, introspective voices. A cacophony of voices that will draw you in, make you think, and create mood and meaning. Voices that will inform the sort of voice that you’d like to try out, put on, and explore as you write. It’s an absolute. Writers are readers.
Sometimes, when I’m looking for a writing project, I’ll open some of my favorite books and soak in the words, the timing, and the thoughtful, reflective musings of the authors, that in turn, get my own creative juices—and my voice—flowing.
Tip #3: Focus on Your Favorites
Study your favorites and analyze why they’re your favorites. What is it about their writing that makes their voice memorable and distinctive? Does it have a lyrical quality? Is it the tone of the narrator’s voice? Is it the way they include the inner thoughts and attitudes of the main character that makes you feel as if you’re going on the journey together? Is it the humor? Is it the sensory details that pull you in? Whatever it is, make note of it. These are all qualities that you can apply to your own writing, your own voice.
Tip #4: Passionate Projects
When I was growing up, writing meant working on a boring report. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table with the huge, red Rand McNally Atlas opened in front of me, and writing my report about the Western United States for my fifth-grade teacher that included details about the average rainfall, the number of square miles, and its highest and lowest points. My goodness! Was there a more boring, life-draining, time-consuming task in the world? I’m guessing that you’ve written your share of boring reports, too.
But this is today. You are free to write about anything you like. Anything. Can you imagine? So, write the story that stirs your soul and lights your fire. When you choose to write what you’re passionate about, voice is inevitable. You’ll want to forge ahead and your voice will lead the way.
Tip #5: Mind Games
Before I began writing, thoughts rolled through my head like water in a stream, and it didn’t matter. However, when I began writing, slowly, gradually, I began to notice my thoughts, and momentarily, holding them up to the light like lucky pennies. For example, one day, I was at church and happened to see an unhappy four-year-old that didn’t want to sit with his Primary “Sunbeam” class. The first thought that sprang to mind was, He doesn’t want to be a Sunbeam, does he? Before, it would’ve just been a passing thought. But this time, I paid attention. It became the title of a short story I wrote, “Petey Didn’t Want to be a Sunbeam” that was later published in a children’s magazine.
The same idea applies to voice. Pay attention to those thoughts that spontaneously flow through your mind. Hold onto them and jot them down. Thoughts are words, and words are the language of writing. They will pave the way forward as you write.
Tip #6: Revision
Revision may not seem like the most exciting thing in the world, but when it comes to writing, there’s nothing better. No matter how awful my first draft might be, I’ve learned over the years that revision is the lifeblood of writing. In fact, it’s often said that writing is revision.
There you go. So how does revision pertain to voice? Each time I revise, new words and phrases come to mind. A better, stronger voice emerges. My writing gets better—and yours will too. So, let’s get to it. Prime, pump, and polish that writing voice.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. and 500 stories and articles. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by New York Times bestselling author/illustrator Matt Phelan, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, Mousequerade Ball, Chicken Lily, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Amazon bestseller Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. Awards for Lori’s books include NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for K-12, Smithsonian’s Notable Book for Children, IWLA Book of the Year Award, and Rhyme Revolution’s Best in Rhyme. Lori has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for 15 years and has been a contest judge.
Are you ready to start writing your book? Let us help! Show the Institute for Writers a sample of your work here.