Maybe it’s premature of me to write this. After all, I haven’t sold a book yet. Voice is an extremely subjective thing and while I generally get a lot of compliments on mine, the sample size of my agent, writing group, critique partners, etc. is still rather small. It may turn out that the rest of the world doesn’t like my voice after all. Think instead of these suggestions as ways to increase the flexibility of your prose, with the bonus that many of them will also enrich your life.
Please note: we all have brains that work in different ways. We all have different methods and muses, emotional and physical spell lots, schedules, and financial circumstances. If any of my suggestions are out of the question for you, please do not feel obligated to follow them. These are ideas, not commands (and feel free to share your own ideas below).
- Write. Write more. Write often. This is the advice I’ve most frequently seen for how to develop your writing voice, and it holds up. Write for (eventual, hoped for) publication and for not. Free write and write fanfiction if that’s what floats your boat. Journal, if it appeals to you, but don’t feel obligated to journal like you’ve seen anyone else do. Include sketches, poetry, snippets of dialogue, or however the muse strikes you that day. Imitate, as children do when they first start trying to write fiction. Write pastiches of your favorite authors or genres, see if you can copy their voice. For fun, combine an unexpected genre and voice: epic fantasy written like a noir, for example, or a western written like contemporary YA. Be experimental whenever you can.
- Read. Read within your genre and outside of it. Some authors are afraid the voices of other authors will bleed into their prose, so they avoid reading in the genre they’re writing. That’s a valid approach, although it’s not mine. I prefer to read so widely within my genre of choice that I (hopefully) don’t allow any one voice to take over my own. I also read genres I have no intention of writing (murder mysteries, for example), non-fiction, and poetry. Devour books, binge read favorite series, allowing yourself to get lost inside them, love them without a thought for how they’ve earned your love. Dissect books and study them, critiquing them, analyzing the prose and the story structure. Keep a notebook and jot down any interesting phrases or quotes you’d like to treasure for later.
- Study. Take writing courses if you can, check out writing books from the library, read blog posts and author’s websites for writer advice. (My favorite may be Susan Dennard’s, whose revision method I have adopted and used frequently for my own books). Don’t stop at studying fiction, either. Study poetry, even if you don’t care to become a published poet. Learn to appreciate different poetic forms and pay attention to how poets use their language. Be sure to study poetry outside the western canon, too. Different cultures play with language in different ways, not just meter and rhyme.
- Learn a new language, multiple if you can. This will improve your understanding of how English grammar works and open your mind up to combining language in new and original ways. It can also increase the quantity of literature out there for you to devour.
- Volunteer when you can. Giving back is one of the richest experiences you can have, as a writer and as a human being. And, despite being an introvert myself, I encourage you towards volunteer activities that involving interacting with other humans. It’s a good way to get out of your own head but also out of your own demographic. I was a volunteer tutor for many years, working with K-12 students of various backgrounds. It was hard work at times, but I loved getting to know these kids, their struggles and background, the unique way they think. Which leads me to . . .
- Spend time with children. Again, if you can. Younger minds have a different way of looking at the world, kids put sounds and words and concepts together in different ways than we jaded adults do. Embrace this. Embrace the newness, exploration, and enthusiasm of the young toddler. Talk to story-telling elementary school kids and notice how unbounded their imaginations are. See if you can create as bravely as they do.
- Spend time with English language learners. Be patient with unfamiliar accents and what we think of as “incorrect” grammar; the rules are always changing anyway. Don’t make fun of those who learned English as adults, for this is a brave undertaking and it’s HARD.
- Have friends outside your own age group. Boomers versus Gen X versus Millennials vs. Gen Z all have different ways of communicating. While trying to sound young and hip can sound very forced, learning how other generations express themselves can enrich your own communication skills. Plus, it’s crap to think you can only learn from those who are older and more experienced than you, or that people from previous generations are all out of touch and have nothing worthwhile to say. You can learn from ANYONE.
- On that subject, live. I don’t want to rehash the Twitter discourse that keeps popping up about whether you can be too old to write (you can’t) or too young to publish (ditto), as it tends towards ageism in both directions, and is always lacking nuance, the way Twitter discussions do. There are advantages and disadvantages to both publishing when you are a fresh college grad or even younger, and when you’ve reached middle age or later, with a career or two under your belt. All I will say is that I am fifty-three and have learned so much from just being alive that long. My current WIPs are those I could not have attempted at a younger age, and all that life experience means I have read and spoken and studied and written in so many ways. It has definitely helped my writing voice.
- Go out “among the people,” as I like to call it. Travel if you can afford to and when and where it’s safe. Go to the shopping mall, ride the bus, sit in the park or a busy downtown square and just listen. Bring a notebook and jot down the dialogue you hear (in a way that does not violate their privacy, of course). Notice the rhythm of the conversation, the relationships of the speakers, the things they put in and the things they leave out. Pay attention to space fillers like “um,” “uh,” “like,” how many times they use each other’s names (probably less often than you’d think), the slang they use, how much or little the speech follows the rules of grammar. Listen to how they cut each other off and when they pause to breathe. I live in an apartment complex, and sometimes I can hear my neighbors’ conversing through the walls. I have a game I like to play wherein I try to guess whether they are having a conversation or watching TV. When there’s a long soliloquy with no pausing for breathing, I generally assume it’s the latter.
This post has gone on very long, and yet it’s just a starter on how to develop your writing voice. What are some tips that have worked for you?
 This is expensive, I know. I’m currently unemployed and generally pretty broke. But scholarships and volunteering have allowed me to attend writing events I could not otherwise have made it to. I also go to writing workshops offered for free through my public library system, and this weekend attended a free online writing retreat called Write Hive Lite. But you are not less of a writer if you cannot take writing classes. I hate how capitalism closes off so many opportunities to those who can’t afford the expense.