Wednesday, February 17, 2016

How to Improve Your Writing - The Importance of "Voice" by Barry R Parker

One of the major things that distinguishes you from others is your voice. It's both the sound of your voice and they way you say things. When you write you also have a voice, and it distinguishes you from other writers. In this case it's the way you write things. And if you write in pleasant and interesting way that is characteristic of your personality, people will be drawn to it, and are more likely to read it. Because of this it's important to develop a pleasing and readable writing voice. This article shows you how to do this.

Voice is what characterizes a writer; it is something you recognize immediately, in the same way you recognize a singer after he or she has sung only a few words. One of the most important things in achieving a pleasant voice is writing the way you talk. The problem with this, however, is that your "talking voice" may not be pleasant, interesting, or even grammatically correct. Furthermore, some people have boring speech patterns, and if they wrote the way they talked, they would also be boring. So a good writing voice isn't something that comes naturally, and it usually takes time to develop it. It's much like a good singing voice; some people are born with one, but most people have to work at improving what they have, and this can take time.

You likely have some feeling for what a good writing voice is. On occasion I'm sure you have picked up a book or article with a promising title only to discover that the writing, though clear and fairly concise, was boring. It just wasn't interesting to read, and you found yourself struggling to stay with it. At other times you may have started to read something of only modest interest to you and discovered after a few paragraphs that you were enthralled with it. And you soon realized it was because of the writing; it was almost as if the writer was talking to you.

How Do You Achieve Voice?

Let me say right off that voice is something you want to develop, and it's worth your time to try to develop it. So let's turn to how you develop it. Two things are needed: relaxation and self-confidence. First of all, you must totally relax when you write and let the true "you" come through, but at the same time you must be sure your writing has most of the things such as interest, readability and so on, that appeal to readers. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

Most people feel confident when they are conversing with friends, and the reason, of course, is that they are relaxed. We are relaxed when we talk because we do it so often, and we're particularly relaxed when we talk to friends because we don't worry about what we say. It stands to reason, then, that if you want to put voice into your writing, you should do a lot of writing - and indeed, this the key. The more you write, the more natural it becomes, and the easier it is for you to do. No longer will you have to sit and think about what you should say (at least it won't take as long). Writing will become as easy as talking.

It's important also that you relax so that your writing sounds like your conversational voice. Don't get me wrong, though. You still have to make sure what you write is interesting and entertaining. So there's more to developing voice than just writing as you talk. But it's a first step. You still have to make sure your writing is grammatically correct, readable, and clear, and you have to keep these things in mind as you write, but don't worry about them in your first draft. That is what revision is for.

I also mentioned that you have to have confidence in your ability to write, and of course, this goes for almost anything you're trying to master. Without confidence you won't get far. As your writing improves, however, your confidence will also increase. Something that helps is to read what you have written out loud occasionally; listen to how it sounds. Compare it to other writing. Other things that also help will be described below.

'Soak Up" An Author

Another technique that is useful in developing voice is what I call "soaking up an author." You no doubt have several authors that you particularly admire. And, as you might expect, they can be helpful in developing your voice. Begin by looking carefully at the way they write. Study their "style." Think about how they are achieving their results. Don't copy them directly, but try to emulate their good points. Incorporate some of them into your writing. The important point is not to copy a particular one, but copy the best of several. It's important to remember that you are different and have a different personality than any of these authors, so you're going to write differently. So use what you can from them, but continue to be yourself.

It's also very useful to compare something you have written to a few paragraphs of one of your favorite authors. Ask yourself if it is as good. If you feel it isn't revise it until you feel it is as good.

Free Writing

Another thing that I feel is very helpful is what I call "free writing." Free writing is just letting yourself go and writing anything that comes into your mind. A good way of doing this is by keeping a "writing book" (or journal) and writing in it every day. The important things when you're doing this is to keep going - don't spend a lot of time thinking about what you should write. Just write nonstop for, say, 15 minutes. Don't worry about how good it is, just keep going. Write about yourself: a recent experience, a memory, or something that happened at the office that day. You may find that when you first try this it will be hard to continue for 15 minutes. But as you continue doing it, it will become easier, and in the process you will help improve your voice.

Breathing Life into Your Writing

Something else that helps is "breathing life into your writing." It's a little different from free writing, but it's also important. Think about something that means a lot to you. Then let your feelings show as you write about it. Try to get emotion into your writing; in essence, write with feeling. Particularly helpful in this case is writing about something you have actually experienced.

Peter Elbow sums up the process in his book "Writing With Power." He says, "If you want to breathe life into your writing so that readers will get a powerful experience from it, you must breathe experience into your words as you write. This can be done best by showing, not telling.

In Conclusion

Don't worry about voice too much in your first draft. You'll likely be too busy getting things down in a logical, orderly fashion, and keeping your facts straight. Just relax and write as naturally as possible. Don't strain for voice - leave that to your revision.

Barry Parker is a professor emeritus (physics) at Idaho State University who now spends most of his time writing. He is the author of 26 books on science, health writing, and music, and he has written for the Smithsonian, Encyclopedia Britannica, Time-Life Books, the Washington Post, and numerous magazines such as Flyfisherman, Astronomy Magazine, and Sky and Telescope. One of his books is "You Should Write a Book: Writing it With Style and Clarity, Publishing Beautiful Pages, Selling Thousands of Copies," It is based on a course he taught at ISU for several years, and is available through his website [] He is also the author of "Feel Great Feel Alive" which is on health, fitness and self-improvement, and he is CEO of Stardust Press. While at ISU he did research on the DNA molecule and on Einstein's Theory of Relativity. His latest book is "Learn from Yesterday, Live for Today, Hope for Tomorrow."

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