In writing, voice matters.
Your voice is a representation of who you are, how you sound, and what you want to say.
Voice is how you combine words, sentences, and paragraphs into coherent wholes that express your singular personality. Sure, someone might write similarly, but no one will write exactly the same. As you develop, you will find the style that makes you you.
You could, for example, write short, punchy sentences (as I’ve tried to in this book). Perhaps, though, longer, more complex ones will better fit your style. It’s up to you to decide what suits you best.
As you develop your voice, people will come to expect it from you. Readers will be able to recognize your work without seeing the author’s name, just as you can immediately recognize a Taylor Swift or a John Legend song.
When fully honed, your voice is like a fingerprint: something unique to you.
ACTIVE, NOT PASSIVE
You’ve probably heard that you should choose the active voice over the passive voice. What does that mean?
In the active voice, someone or something (the subject of the sentence, a noun) is doing something (a verb), as in “Jimmy Fallon sucked up to Jennifer Lopez on The Tonight Show.” In the passive voice, the verb is doing something to the noun, as in “J.Lo was buttered up by Jimmy.”
Or take this example from The New York Times:
On June 30, a third anniversary was celebrated, complete with outdoor dining at the corner restaurant, drinks, even flowers.
That use of “was” makes this the passive voice. The active voice is more forceful, using action words; in this case, the Times could have said:
On June 30, the couple celebrated their third anniversary, complete with outdoor dining at the corner restaurant, drinks, even flowers.
You cannot eliminate the passive voice completely; sometimes it’s the most appropriate choice. When in doubt, though, cast a sentence in the active voice.
FIRST, SECOND, THIRD
Also, when choosing a voice, decide whether you want to write in first, second, or third person.
First person comes from the author, as in, “I said,” “I did,” and “I should.” It’s the most personal and intimate of the three.
Second person speaks directly to the reader with “you” sentences, like “You said,” “You did,” or “You should.” It’s a way to involve the reader and, often, offer advice and direction.
Third person is more objective and omniscient, as in, “She said,” “She did,” and “She should.” It’s good for narrative and more formal writing.
In general, it’s best to stick with one of the three when producing a piece, although you can mix them up. I use all three in this book.
One last note about voice: You should develop what writers call a “good ear.”
This is the voice you hear in your head when you write. It tells you whether your work flows easily or whether it’s clunky: the former is good, the latter not so much. It’s related to how you talk to yourself, the mental dialogue we all have.
Develop your ear by reading others’ work, by thinking about how you and others speak, and by “hearing” yourself write. To listen to your voice, read your work aloud or have your computer or device speak it (Pro Tip 40).
To create a strong voice, don’t equivocate.
Write confidently, with few “maybe,” “sort of,” and “almost” references. Be careful of such qualifiers, except for accuracy. As The Elements of Style puts it:
If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.
Make your voice your own.
In a Substack column, author Mark Starlin uses the short and sweet marketing slogan “Got Milk?” to show how it would sound with different voices:
The Overly Descriptive Pretentious Voice I believe I shall venture into the deep-hued darkness of the evening on a trek in my oversized motorized vehicle in search of that enticing white liquid which I frequently pour liberally over wheat flakes in the early hours of the morn’ before the sun has fully shaken its slumber.
The Motivational Voice Drink that milk. Go get more. Drink that milk. Go get more.
The Scholarly Voice Milk is a product of the mammary glands of mammals. It is a white liquid that provides nourishment to infant mammals before they can digest solid foods. My supply of milk has expired.
The Cynical Voice They say milk is good for you. My brother drank milk. He died.
The Listical Voice Here are 47 reasons why you should go get milk.