A Question of (Writing) Voice: How to Strengthen It, How to Shape It

I got a fascinating question on Twitter: How do I handle a mismatch between my writing voice and my company’s writing voice? Is there any way to reconcile?

Voice is one of those things writers obsess over — how to make it stronger, clearer, more distinctive. Voice is what makes your writing different from anyone else’s — while still getting your point across.

Your writing voice can be your greatest strength as a content creator, or your greatest barrier to successful communication.

In this 16-minute episode, I talk about:

  • My thoughts on how to make your voice stronger
  • How to use a journal (my preference is paper & ink) to build your writing voice
  • That line between being professional and just being dull
  • The role of a strong voice when you’re writing for an organization
  • How editing makes you 100 times more brilliant than you really are
  • The difference (as I see it) between healthy controversy and tiresome drama

The Show Notes

A Question of (Writing) Voice: How to Strengthen It, How to Shape It

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Sonia Simone: Greetings, super friends. My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the Chief Content Officer for Copyblogger Media. I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

I’m going to do something different today. I usually do a Q & A at around this point, and I got a lovely question and conversation from Twitter from Virginia Warren, so I thought I would do a Q & A just on this question because I have a lot to say about it and because I thought it was worth a little more in-depth attention.

My Thoughts on How to Make Your Voice Stronger

The question, which I’m going to paraphrase because it’s hard to go back and find old things on Twitter, is, “How do I handle a mismatch between my writing voice and my company’s writing voice? Is there any way to reconcile that when the organization that I write for has a different voice than I do?”

I have a lot to say about this, and I want to start with talking about how, as writers — and to some degree as podcasters, as people who create video content — but really as writers, as people who create words and share them with other people, developing your voice, the key more than anything else is just a tremendous amount of practice over time.

To become a better writer, you want to write and write and write. The more writing you do, the more like you you’re going to sound, and until you sound like you, you can’t sound like anyone else. Your confidence is not going to be there. You’re not going to have that authority in your voice, and that is whether you’re doing a podcast or whether you’re doing text. You’re not going to have that confidence until you’ve been doing it for enough time that you really understand who you are and how you as an individual work with language.

One thing I would say is write every day, but don’t publish every day. Write something. I’m going to talk about some of my ideas for things to write every day. Just get in that habit of making it no big deal, making it not so special, not so precious. Writing shouldn’t be some kind of mysterious magical activity that only happens when you have a deadline or when you have a special occasion. The more often you write and over the longer amount of time that you write, the stronger your voice is going to get.

How to Use a Journal (My Preference Is Paper & Ink) to Build Your Writing Voice

One of the first things I would recommend is journaling of some kind: writing down what you think, what you care about, what’s on your mind, what’s bothering you, what you’re celebrating. I really recommend doing this by hand.

There’s two kinds of people. There are the kinds of people who automatically tuned out and said, “I’m never going to do that, so no,” and the people who are like, “Well, that’s interesting. I might be able to try that out.” You know which kind you are. You’re going to do it, or you’re not going to do it.

I really recommend that you write by hand. There’s just something about pen, paper, and your writing brain that work together in a very interesting way. It slows you down. It makes you more thoughtful about how you’re putting the words together. It can teach you some really interesting things about how language goes together.

If you really are passionate about developing a better writing voice, about strengthening your muscle as a writer, I would take a creative writing class. I would take a poetry class, a play-writing class. It doesn’t have to be in any way pragmatic or related to anything that you do. A screenwriting class. Even, interestingly, I think an acting class, because how you work with the language that you speak is very closely related to how you work with the language that you write. Play with language, and see if you can get into a group, a class, where other people are playing with language. You can learn so much that way.

One thing I recommend if you’re working on your chops as a writer, working on your writing voice, is spying on people in coffee shops and making up stories about them. This is endlessly entertaining. This is why writers are terrible people, because we do things like this. Just look at people in an airport, coffee shop, the pick-up line at your kid’s school, and make up little stories about them. Who are they, and what are the adventures they’re having? What are the conflicts in their life, and what are the highs and lows? This is great fun to do, and again, it’s a way to play with words and play with your own observations.

It’s always really interesting to try to capture how other people talk, so keep a notebook with scraps and phrases and little bits of language that you hear or read. Listen for interesting ways that different people put phrases together.

Related to that, I would recommend that any creative person keep a notebook with you all the time. I’m reading Richard Branson’s book right now, The Virgin Way. He’s a bit of a compulsive note taker, partly because he does have some issues with learning disabilities, so he needs to take notes so he can remember what he talked about in a meeting and what other people talked about in a meeting. He takes copious notes. It also helps him listen, which is critical to being a good writer and a good communicator — being an amazing listener. It’s a good read, if you want to pick it up.

But keep some kind of notebook with you all the time to capture phrases, words, and how they can go together.

One very cool practice, particularly if you’re specifically trying to become a better writer, is to create what’s called a ‘commonplace book,’ and the author Ryan Holiday’s written about this in some interesting way. That’s just a book of quotations that you’ve read, passages that you found compelling from other books, and copying them down. Long passages, short passages. It’s not only quotes. It can also extend to longer pieces.

I once copied an entire novel out by hand. The copy that I had was water-damaged when I was about 20 pages from the end, and I started it over, and I did it again, because I was so interested in this writer’s use of language and how he saw the world, how he described the world, that I wanted to make that part of my DNA. That’s a really fun thing to do. You don’t have to do a whole book, but writing out passages from people whose writing voice you admire is a tremendous way to strengthen that muscle that puts words together.

You guys have heard me say this before. As far as I’m concerned, social media counts. The writing you do on social media is writing if you try to dig a little deeper. So if you’re really working to come up with a thoughtful reply and a thoughtful response to something that you see and you’re not just dashing something off, you can really get a lot of strengthening of your writing muscle, and especially your persuasion muscle, by writing on social media, but you have to be thoughtful and mindful about how you do it.

One thing is that you may find that you sound like your favorite writers for quite a while, and you keep sounding like your favorite writers until you start to sound like yourself. That’s totally okay and good and a normal part of the process. If you tremendously admire somebody’s voice, whether it’s their voice in a podcast, their voice in writing, who they are in interviews, then that person’s voice will often tend to become part of your voice for a while until you’ve really made it something that’s yours, until you’ve transmuted it to something that’s individually you.

That Line between Being Professional and Just Being Dull

So those are some thoughts on how to strengthen your writing voice, but what do we do with the original question, which is what happens when my voice, as an individual, isn’t necessarily very congruent with the voice of my organization?

I’ve definitely done a lot of writing for organizations. I have thoughts about this. There is a line, and you have to identify where it is, because on the one hand, companies that try too hard to sound ‘professional’ tend to sound like robots that no one wants to actually do business with. People don’t want to do business with companies. They want to do business with other people.

So as much as possible, you want to convince any organization you’re writing for to sound like a person, but you have to sound like the kind of person that that audience is looking to connect with. So if you’re working for a financial institution, then you don’t want your writing voice to be painting a picture of cut-offs and flip flops. Your voice has to match the voice of the organization.

Partly, that really is about tone, so if you think about the way that you interact with people in your normal life, you probably don’t talk to a five-year-old the same way you talk to your grandmother. You don’t talk to a boyfriend or a girlfriend the way that you talk with a colleague. You don’t use the same tone of voice in a job interview that you do in the grocery store. So partly, it is about finding a tone that is appropriate to the situation.

The Role of a Strong Voice When You’re Writing for an Organization

When you’re trying to capture the voice of a company, an organization, a non-profit, whoever it is you might be writing for, I always like to lead by uncovering the core values of that organization, so walking around and interviewing the people in that organization who are crazy passionate about it. Sometimes that’s a founder. Sometimes it’s a sales person. Sometimes it’s a support person. I don’t know who it’s going to be in that organization for you, but find the people who are really passionate about the values of that organization, and understand those in a very in-depth way.

This can be part of why learning to write fiction can be helpful, because you can actually make the organization into a fictional character who’s driven by very strong values and beliefs.

Of course, you want to watch things like word choice, like which individual word you choose for the situation. You also want to think, though, about what kind of metaphors and analogies you use, because these are a lot of what lends the color to our writing. Also, think about the stories you’re telling. Whose point of view is that story being told by? What’s the moral of the story?

How Editing Makes You 100 Times More Brilliant than You Really Are

Probably the most valuable tool, if your natural writing voice is not a perfect fit with the writing voice of your organization, is editing. Edit, edit, edit. Great writing is really much more about rewriting than it is about a fantastic draft. Take out that word choice that’s very much your voice but is not aligned with who that company is. Take out anything that doesn’t ring true, doesn’t ring right.

One incredibly helpful thing to do is to read your work aloud. Anybody working on their voice, read your work aloud, and your spoken voice will often find the stumbles. It will often find the spots that aren’t what they should’ve been. They looked good on the page, but when they don’t sound good when they’re spoken, that’s when you know it’s time to rewrite.

We had a post on Copyblogger, a terrific post that I’ll link to in the show notes called The Rule of 24, and anytime you can possibly do it — sometimes in a professional situation we can’t — give yourself the rule of 24. Let any piece of writing sit for 24 hours before it’s published, and then have a second look at it. It’s unbelievable what even that small amount of distance will do for you in terms of making the wrong word very clear or the awkward turn of phrase very clear. The rule of 24 will make you a much more genius writer very quickly if you can do it. Really work to build it into your deadlines. Work to build it into your process.

Lastly, in any kind of conversation that we’re going to have about writing voice, I’m going to talk about personality and controversy. I’ve said it before in this podcast. Personality matters, but trainwrecks die broke.

If all you do with your voice, with your content, with the persona that you’re putting out in the world, is get attention by annoying people, then … I don’t know. Maybe that makes you happy, which is great if it does. I wouldn’t be happy with that. There is not anything wrong with controversy if it comes from a deep-held value. I might disagree very strongly with your deeply held value, and that’s okay. It’s a big world. There’s lots of different kinds of customers in it. I’m not the only customer. If I really am not in alignment with that value, it’s okay, because somebody will be. You want to make that connection with the people who are in alignment with you.

One of the things that’s important to me, with being a value-centered person, a value-centered communicator, is I think it’s important to stand for something and not just stand against something. But that’s me. It’s your life. It’s your rules. I think it’s important to know what you want to happen and what you’re advocating for, not just what you’re protesting against.

I do counsel you not to be known just for drama. Be known for helping people. Be known for believing in something and for being willing to stand up and talk about that because on the rough days — we all have rough days — you will know that you did something that mattered, and that means a lot.

So, that’s my thoughts on writing voice. I would love to hear your thoughts on writing voice, if you want to drop a comment. If you’re listening to this show on iTunes, I would surely love a star rating or a review. That just makes me awfully happy, and it helps me out.

However, if you’d like to leave a comment, you probably want to swing by PinkHairedMarketer.FM, and you can find all of the episodes. Just drop me a comment. I would love to know what you think. Maybe some of your favorite ideas for developing your writing voice and making it stronger, and for going out into the world and having something to say.

As you know, the Confessions of a Pink-haired Marketer are brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

Thank you guys so much for your time and attention. I really appreciate it, and I’ll talk with you soon. Take care.