A 50/50 Post: How Writers Undermine Their Own Voices

This blog article needs your input, that’s why it’s labeled a “50/50 post.” It relies on your experience, opinions and sharing. Consider it a close cousin to an open thread. I’ll use these 50/50 posts for topics that especially call for a variety of insights. Get ready to speak up in the comments!

A strong, distinctive voice is the strongest tool a writer can have. Achieving such a “tool” requires exercise, feedback and ongoing improvement. I recently attended a reading by Lit author Mary Karr, and she was amazing. If you’re looking for a stellar example of a well-defined writer’s voice, Karr is one of the best. When an audience member asked her for advice to memoir writers, Karr said that it’s about voice. To paraphrase: If you get the voice right, everything else will follow.

That can be said for many writing projects, from a freelance website copywriting gig to a personal essay to a magazine article to a blog post. If you’re in the market for tips on discovering or developing your writer’s voice, you can find help here and here.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what can undermine your voice. These are sneaky habits or phrases you may not realize you’re using until someone else points them out.

  • “I think…” If you are trying to persuade or establish yourself as an expert, using “I think” weakens your argument. When I’m editing others’ works, it’s one of the first things I cut. It can come across as timid, unsure or even weak. Unfortunately, it’s a habit that particularly plagues women. Be brave—state what you want to say without trying to preface it.
  • Being passive. Unless you’re deliberately using it as character development, it’s best to avoid using passive language. It can weigh your prose down, making your voice sound slow and heavy. Using active verbs can help you build energy into your words and keep your readers engaged.

Okay, so this is where we start sharing.

What’s a third way that writers undermine their own voices? Has someone given you a great tip that you can pass on to fellow readers here? Have you helped someone develop his or her voice? How did you do it? Please share in the comments below.

Photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveknapik/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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6 thoughts on “A 50/50 Post: How Writers Undermine Their Own Voices

  1. Laura (Seals), when I was writing full-time for one corporation, I found it difficult to (as you say) disengage and find my own voice–especially if I wasn’t working on my own writing on a regular basis. Thanks for the book recommendation, too. It sounds like an interesting and helpful read.

  2. Like this topic, Jesaka.
    Tone contributes a great deal to the voice – Will you use formal or informal language? slang? regional colloquialisms?
    I often write corporate communications for my boss, so I’m practiced in writing in someone else’s voice. Its harder to disengage corporate-speak and the formality of his communications to find my own voice.

    [I support his voice by leaving in his extra Canadian “u”s in words like colour and neighbour.]

    An interesting book related to business usage is “How to Say It for Women” – the author spends some time on your earlier points about minimizing your own opinion with “I think” and using passive constructions.

  3. Your comment is definitely pertinent to this topic, Laura. Sloppy work can change an author’s intentions–and make the write seem inexperienced or careless. Thanks for sharing your advice.

  4. Well, perhaps it’s not pertinent to this topic, but one way that a writer can undermine themselves is by getting in too much of a rush and not checking over their work carefully.

  5. That is a such an important tip, Susan. I’ve known editors who refuse to let writers use one exclamation point in an entire 1,200+ word article. Maybe they are extreme, but they’ve got a point. Or, maybe I should say, they’ve got a point!

  6. At the other end of the spectrum are writers who sound really, really confident and excited!! So excited, in fact, that they use lots of adverbs and exclamation points to convey this. Don’t do this, because it undermines your writing big time. You rarely need a “really” or “very” to get your point across and exclamation points are best used sparingly.

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