Do you sound different when you talk on the phone? I do.
I call up the dentist’s office to make an appointment and my voice shoots up an octave the second the receptionist picks up the phone. I talk loud and fast and use phrases I never use in real life, like “oh sure, Tina, Tuesday would be TERRIFIC.” And sometimes a smidgen of Texas twang will slide in and I’ll sound like I’m Matthew McConaughey dipped in honey even though I’m from California. It’s ridiculous and I know it, and yet I do it every time. Why?
Well, to tell you the truth, I put on this very not-me phone voice because I want to give Tina Thee Receptionist a specific impression of me: Ann, the chipper cheery gal who deserves a twenty percent discount on her teeth whitening appointment because she’s so nice on the phone.
But let’s face it. In reality, Tina is probably wondering, “Why is this questionably Texan lady shouting?”
Adopting a different voice or otherwise masking your personality never works as well as you want. It doesn’t work on the phone with your dentist’s receptionist, nor will it work on the page with your reader. And yet so many of the authors I work with will hand me a manuscript that sounds nothing like them. Whether they do it intentionally or not, whether they’re aware of it or not, their writing voice sounds like someone else’s—and that insanely creative, smart leader with a message to share is nowhere to be found.
But How Can I Find My Voice?
When authors ask me to help them “find” their voice, I typically respond with “What’s wrong with the one you have?” In fact, the finding-my-voice problem isn’t that writers have lost theirs; it’s that they’ve given in to the temptation to write in a different voice. Here are the leading offenders I see cross my desk:
Overly Formal Business/Academic Voice
So much of my clients’ writing is haunted by the voice of their corporate or academic past. It’s the voice that was trained to report facts and data, politely decline meeting invitations, and write whitepapers. It’s the voice that had every last shimmer of personality wrung out of it in the name of decorum and “being taken seriously.” Writing like that is for your boss and the HR director and neither of them would pay to read it. It’s also boring AF.
Ultra-Wooey Guru Voice
“Look with your heart!” says the conference speaker.
“Follow your inner knowing,” says the deodorant commercial.
“Lean into the abundant joy of your discomfort,” says the TikTok influencer.
“Embrace your power,” says an entire bookshelf of authors.
Sure, these words sound pretty but they don’t say much—not really. In fact, you could swap around pieces of those sentences above, and you’d still end up saying the same (no)thing. Look with your inner knowing. Embrace the abundant joy of your discomfort. See what I mean? They’re totally interchangeable. Worse, it could be anybody saying them (and many already are). The market is so oversaturated with these pretty-but-empty phrases that it’s leaving a puddle on the floor and smells like that bathing suit you definitely should’ve hung up yesterday but didn’t. So if this sounds like you, no it doesn’t.
Highfalutin’ “Author” Voice
Ahh, the Offender in Chief. So many authors will use ten-dollar words and complicated sentence structure because they think that’s how a book is “supposed” to sound. They want to sound smart, sophisticated, literary, impressive, and so they put on these authorial airs in their writing. And it totally backfires. Thing is, though, they don’t necessarily have the wrong idea. It’s important to sound good… they just botched the execution.
Your writing voice should sound like you but better.
You already have a unique way of thinking and speaking, and guess what, that’s your writer’s voice. Communicate clearly, honestly, and authentically, and you’ll have a strong voice. Let your philosophical edge come through, and you’ll have a distinct voice. Allow your personality (with all its creative impulse and originality) to make an appearance, and your readers will connect with it because they want to connect with YOU. “Finding your voice” really comes down to a willingness to let who you are and how you think show up on the page in your words. Start there.
Then as you revise your writing, on your own or with the help of an editor, you can refine and polish your prose until it sounds totally pro.