How to Write With a Distinctive Voice

How to Write With a Distinctive Voice

Reader Comments (75)

  1. You’ve just echoed the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave me about writing well for the web: read back what you’ve written, out loud.

    Sure, if you work in a crowded office then it might get you a few odd looks. But it lets you instantly identify where your prose jars or sounds unnatural. I highly recommend it.

    I do think that the web is a medium that’s particularly suited to this method. A natural, conversational tone lends itself really well to the online environment, and sometimes I think it doesn’t work so well in printed media.

  2. Another tip: use voice software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking to write your posts. It’ll make you inherently more conversational 🙂

  3. Dave, thanks for this post as it lays out the “voice” issue out in an easy to digest manner. Our little blogging community (I see Writer Dad’s already been here) has been discussing this topic quite a bit lately. I’ve taken a bunch of writing classes and workshops and I don’t recall the subject being covered in such an down to earth manner. Thanks

  4. I’ve worked as a writing coach at newspapers for more than 15 years and frequently assigned reporters this exercise to tighten their copy and find their voice:

    Take the article you’ve written and see how many words you can delete, without changing the meaning. For each word you delete, I’ll give you $1. I didn’t pay them, of course, but the exercise showed them how extraneous words bog down copy and kill the personality in their writing.

    More tips for finding your voice:

    —Use shorter words and short sentences.

    —Vary sentence length within your copy.

    —Don’t be afraid to use one-word sentences.

    —Don’t use a word when writing that you wouldn’t use when speaking.

    —Yes, you may use slang.

    —Avoid cliches.

    —Study good writing. When you see a well-written column or blog post, take the time to dissect it. What, specifically, caught your attention? Experiment with that same technique the next time you write.

    –No more wimpy verbs! You can often replace a wimpy verb followed by a preposition (“get up”) with a stronger verb (“rise”).

    –Write in the active voice. (“The boy put the book on the table,” not “The book was put on the table by the boy.”)

    –Every time you’re tempted to use a form of “is,” stop and look for a stronger verb.

    “Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality into Your Writing” by Les Edgerton explains more about this topic. You can probably find it on Amazon.

    Serious writers should also refer to “The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage” by Theodore Bernstein, a former copy editor at the the New York Times.

  5. I lurvs the informal.

    Especially when it comes to swearing.

    It’s fun to read the Mommy bloggers when _unt Flow comes!
    Makes a sailor blush.
    (_unt = Aunt you pervs.)

  6. Conversational writing is definitely the right style for the web, and realy probaby for most marketing. I’ve seen way too much ‘marketingese’ on business websites, even advertising agency websites!

    This is marketing death, the language is just too abstract and impersonal to touch people.

    On the other hand, it’s not literally true that conversational writing is writing the way you speak. Heck, if I wrote the way I speak, I would be doomed!

    Conversational writing is itself a stylized and to some degree an artificial writing form, even when it comes naturally. I only wish I could talk the way I can write!

    But yes, if you can acquire this conversational tone in your writing, it will serve you well.

  7. Great suggestions! I almost always read back aloud what I have typed, and it pretty much matches my speaking style exactly. There is nothing more boring than a precise writer using all the “big” words in their post. Just be yourself!

  8. There’s some good advice here but I wouldn’t suggest emulating the style in this post! Sorry, but large chunks of it were unintelligible with too many run-on sentences and parentheses. I needed to read several paragraphs twice.

    I think it’s true that most bloggers should channel less of the school essay (particularly avoiding the passive voice) and more of the spoken voice. But people ramble a lot more when they speak and I don’t think that’s what you want from a blog. In my opinion the trick is to be informal AND concise at the same time. Also, people tend to use a lot of cliches when they speak (like babies and bathwater) and I don’t think that works well either – even when you highlight the irony by calling it the ‘proverbial baby’!

    Also re:
    ‘Most journalists are so heavily edited that any personality they’ve added to a story has long since been weaned out by the editorial process.’
    As a journalist, I can tell you this is simply not true. It might be somewhat true for hard news stories – not because they are heavily edited, but because the structure and style is pre-determined and sometimes quite rigid. It’s not at all true for softer news stories (colour stories, picture stories, human interest stories), nor for features or comment pieces.

  9. Thanks… this is a very good advice for a new blogger like me. I’m used to writing business reports. If I “ever” write that way in my blog, I’m sure no one will even read past my first sentence. 🙂

  10. Thanks for the feedback and commentary, everyone, positive and negative. I will admit, Caitlin, that I tried to have a bit more of a “strong voice” than I usually employ, to help make a point. Nonetheless, one person’s run-on sentence is another person’s brilliant prose, and one person’s decision to completely omit all capitalization is another person’s favorite poet. Go figure. 🙂

    The best way to really get a sense of my voice is to go and read a half-dozen of my blog postings, on any of my sites. Then come back and report what you found!

  11. Dave
    I couldn’t agree more. You have encapsulated in one page the core of William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” – great job.

  12. I wondered about this topic as well, having my own online business. I am informal in what I write about and how I write. I avoid controversy, however.

  13. Great post. I have recently been disassembling the wall of ‘proper’ writing in my own work and the bennifits have been huge.

    Lending a little from Comac McCarthy I have done away with all the standard punctuation associated with dialog and I have found (as others have too) that my dialog reads much more naturaly now. I think this is because I can simply write the words that I hear in my head without mentaly jumping out of the scene to worry about puntuation.

    Free form writing (if done well) is my favorite.

  14. It’s true that a lot of people can’t let themselves write more informally — I am trying to get associates at my ‘day job’ to participate in the company blog, and so far it’s been like pulling teeth — either laziness or self-consciousness is keeping pretty much everyone from helping unless they’re directly ordered to. Not so fun. I’ll keep telling them to just write like they talk, and that we’ll clean up any obvious problems later, but will they listen to me? Of course not!

  15. Hi Dave

    Top tip about taking time between writing and publishing. Thanx. Obvious when you think about it but, hey, it’s those obvious tips that are the ones that stick.

    I have been trying to write more in my own voice lately – as opposed to writing in my “teacher” voice. To be honest…I don’t know if it makes a difference but I am getting a closer to writing from my heart instead of writing from my head. That seems like a good thing.

    Ultimately, we write for our readers as bloggers – otherwise we could just keep unpublished diaries. Our writing style reflects the industry conventions, the type of content (not so cool to use brackets and fillers in scientific/technical writing for example), and cultural context.

    Keep up the good work. Your blog keeps me inspired to blog-on…though I wonder if blog writing sites should come with a health warning that blogging is addictive???

  16. Dave,

    This is too funny. I just wrote a blog post today on this very same subject, right down to the reference to our fifth grade teachers!

    One of my suggestions is to actually record yourself talking about the topic you will be blogging about. Not every time, of course, but in the beginning it gives you a sense of your natural tone/style/word choice, before you start writing.

    I let it all spill out in the first draft, but I do go in and edit and tighten so it’s not full of rambling, boring sentences.

    It’s that unique voice you are looking for. My highest compliment is when someone who hasn’t met me before says, “I feel like I already know you from your blog posts.” Sweet.

  17. I’ve found the same things true for doing videos, just be yourself, warts, flubs, and all, and they usually come out with some personality and fun to them.

  18. We pretty much need to remember to be kind to the reader. Heavy on the word count (extraneous) isn’t always folksy. For me, now, I’ve been beat about the keyboard by editors for ‘editorializing’ and letting my own feelings slip in. Depends on where you are.
    Funny thing…I just sent off a presentation that was done exactly this way. As if I were standing there talking to these folks. One of my peers reamed me about two d–ned words and an incomplete sentence….he wasn’t so perfect grammatically and he was very insensitive to what I, the writer/speaker wanted to get across. “Like, baby, write your own presentation and leave your big fingers off of mine.” I was softer; pointing out that I didn’t commit him or his committee to my presentation as it was personally my expression, send with only my own signature. Haven’t heard from him since…maybe his feelings were hurt. More than mine?

  19. That’s a twist. I guess I can write a few posts in that voice and see how it works out. One thing I’m sure, I’d be more comfortable writing in that tone.
    Thanks, Dave.

  20. Wonderful & enlightening post Dave.And thanks for pointing out the fact how many insipid & ultra boring textbooks we have to endure throughout college & into our professional lives.I once developed a remote hope that …there must be a more engaging way to organize & disseminate human knowledge that could potentially be just accessible & possibly absorbent to our fleshy brain.

  21. I like your post David and I agree. A suggestion I may add is to read plays. Get your hands on plays and read, read, read…you can have a deeper understanding of a writer’s voice when it comes to dilaogue in plays.

    A good technique you can use is a tape recorder. Now, I’ve personally experimented with the tape recorder in terms of improvising a characters expression when I write monologues or write in general. It’s good as long as it doesn’t make you self consious. If the tape recorder does, get rid of it because it will prevent you from true expression.

    Also, a keynote here would be to observe life. Lend your ear loudly to the world around you. Listen to how people talk and this will prove to be beneficial when helping the writer fin their own unique voice.

    That’s just my two cents. 🙂

  22. It’s so true how we have to step back from ourselves and take a second to just relax and let it come out naturally.

    I find that the more you think about the writing process, the more likely you are to make it sound fake…just relax and let it flow.

  23. I have my wife read my blog – she can tell me in 30 seconds flat whether I’ve nailed it or blown it – and she’s quite honest… in a sweet way.

  24. Thank you for this post. I am so glad that someone understands that blogging isn’t all about prose and perfect grammar. If I wanted to sound like a stuffy, old author great, but most people don’t like to read stuffy, old authors.

  25. I strongly agree with this:

    “the best way to write clear, coherent, engaging and enjoyable content is to write the way you speak, to recognize your spoken voice and pour it out onto the virtual page of your computer screen and weblog.”

    It’s probably the best writing advice there is–it enables anyone to more accurately express themself and their distinctive voice and views, regardless of their grasp of grammar or vocabulary.

  26. Dave, thanks for reminding my to write with my own voice. It’s something I try to do and often go back and rewrite whole articles, having got caught out writing the style of a boring textbook.

    I am also an enthusiatic mis-user of parenthesis, hyphens and start by favourite sentences with But.

  27. I do this!!! It’s a no brainer really – I am not a big blogger, but I would like to be and i find this is the easiest way to write a post…

    Thanks for confirming to that what i am doing is ok…

  28. Hi Dave,

    I gotta say, I do love this post. I’ll tell you how my writing career got started:

    I was asked to write a small equipment review for my employer’s newsletter. I’d never written anything before, but I just sat down and wrote it. I didn’t toil for hours over what went where, and were my participles all danglin’ and everything. I just wrote it.

    I didn’t think too much of it, and then the feedback started rolling in and before I knew it I was getting calls from national newsletters asking to reprint the article and such. (Please don’t think I’m bragging here, I DO know how fortunate I am.)

    From that point on, I’ve always just written how I speak. Depending on the appropriateness, I’m using “gotta” and “kinda” and ’cause. I don’t do it consciously, it’s just that’s what is coming out of my head. How my mind hears it is how I write it.

    Certainly there are things I write that require a more formal tone. In these instances, I still remain conversational, I just take out all of the “gee-whiz” stuff.

    Everyone does have a unique voice. It’s all in your head. Let it flow from your head to your fingers and you are well on the way.



  29. I’m just using the style of communication that fits the right places for the right audience.

    Like I can go casual for most of the times, to going into a more formal tone that are suited for the more serious topics.

  30. “Dagwood!” ( That’s something I say out loud, emphatically, when I’m feeling silly. My kids always laugh and so I say it a lot). So, Dagwood..Dave, that was a very helpful post. I think I knew I could write like I talk, but you officially gave me permission! It was great that you even gave me permission to end my sentence with a preposition.

  31. Yup. This is exactly what I think as well. For years I felt my writing wasn’t up to par, but now many people tell me they actually enjoy what I write. Whoda thunkit?

  32. Great post, Dave. Whether it’s a blog, a novel, or killer direct mail copy, keeping a reader engaged is more about voice than grammatical correctness. I’ve always preferred to read and write copy that sounds like a person wrote it, rather than a legal department. Now I wish I could convince my clients of that more often.

  33. Dave, you point to one of my favorite tricks, but I only use it for snark. “Um” can convey a nice degree of sarcasm, as if one has been temporarily rendered speechless by the cluelessness one is describing. Very fun.

    Another nice thing about learning to write with your speaking voice is that it lets you draft faster. I suspect a lot of people are unconsciously “translating” what they would say to what they think they should write. No wonder so many folks get blocked up.

  34. Or you could simply abandon the entire writing process, which, for me, was a deep rabbit hole that discouraged frequent posting, and start vlogging as I have. Much faster, and, um, definitely distinctive.

    Please note though, in order for this to work for you, as it has for me, you must have movie star looks, thick lustrous hair, a megawatt smile, and a well-rehearsed something to say ; )

  35. Outstanding article. I am always afraid to end a sentence with w proposition but thanks to your advise, I am free to do just that. Very good information.

  36. I agree with you completely on writing with a distinctive voice. I taught middle school English for a few years, and when I told students that it was alright to write the way they spoke, they were completely lost. The key is to know your audience. You’re going to write to a potential business prospect differently than you will write to those reading your personal blog. However, I still believe there’s a way to maintain your voice across-the-board. Great post!

  37. I appreciate the advise, and I think focusing on writing the way I speak will be a big step in the right direction.

    However I wonder if there is not another step after that, which will help my readers respond to me.

    Thanks for the post.


  38. I’m a fan of conversation-driven writing. I also like punchy, potent, and impactful points. At the end of the day, experience and passion shine through as long as you don’t block it and you write from what you know.

    Your point about saying it out loud versus just writing it out is a great way to get the rough spots out and find your voice.

  39. What a great article. I love the fact that you are encouraging writers to write freely, but in the right situation. I guess our education taught us not to write with bad grammars, but also to speak elegantly. I have tried this concept before, but it is hard. Sometimes I free write, but then I end up proof-reading what I have written.
    Thanks for the article. It was very entertaining and educational.

  40. Great article, just great!
    Gave me much inspiration while i was writing for one of my customers. (If you wonder, i was writing in Swedish, not English. You don’t have to be worried) 😉

    I have the ambition to become a great english copy though.

  41. This is a great read for journalists and PR professionals. Messages have to be clear and serve a purpose. Everyone has their own writing style and you can see some great examples from journalists in The Wall Street Journal or from publicists at 5WPR in New York who creatively put together story pieces, and serve their purpose to the public.

  42. I think that I just found out why writing has been so difficult for me!

    I’m one of those people that tries to use a “professional voice” on my blog. The truth is, that just makes blogging much harder!

    From now on, I’ll be using these exact tips, Dave. Thanks!

  43. Well, I uh thought that was very useful. You know I am trying to write the same way I would speak. hehe..I am actually talking out loud while typing. try that sometime.

    I think it would make for a very interesting blog.

    Take care!

    Lisa K
    Traffic Coordinator
    We Drive Traffic! Traffic Drives Results!

  44. I’m a fan of conversation-driven writing. I also like punchy, potent, and impactful points. At the end of the day, experience and passion shine through as long as you don’t block it and you write from what you know.

  45. My favorite book on this topic is “Finding Your Voice: How to put personaltiy in your writing” by Les Edgerton.

    Here’s another tip. Study great writing.

    When you see a blogger or columnist whose writing sounds like casual conversation (which is often good writing), analyze it.

    What words didn’t you expect to see? How long are the sentences? How many one-word phrases? Did the writer use a technique you can adapt to your own writing style?

  46. I think you need to understand the grammar and how to be formulaic. People expect that. Once they’re sure they can depend on you for decent writing it’s time to slip in a few colloquialisms:)

  47. A very good tips of writing skills. I experienced when I leave my new post unpublished and back on the editing template for some time to read it again.

    What I found is that I found some grammatical errors and also add some new good ideas that would make my new post good to share to others.

    Thank you very much for sharing this stuff. I will discipline myself to do it again and again and make it a habit.

  48. Great advice. our blog definetly needs this infomation. Sometimes we don’t feel like writting new posts, but its the only way to get better at our talent.


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