It’s not unusual to get an essay back from a teacher with the feedback, “write in your own voice,” scrawled across the top. But it’s easier said than done. Here you are, writing your own thoughts and your own opinions, all according to the directions of the assignment; how can it not be in your own voice? What your teacher is actually telling you is that your writing sounds too formulaic, too stilted, or too bland. Sure, you’ve learned how to write using proper grammar and you’ve learned how to formulate and format your thoughts into an essay, but now you need to take it to the next level. Don’t stick to the formula; write in your own voice. Here are a few tips for getting started.
1. Binge, Then Purge
This sounds graphic, but what I mean is that once you have a topic chosen and you’re getting started, just let it loose. Start writing whatever comes into your head, as naturally as it comes. Get your ideas out. Once you’ve got some material, rearrange, cut, and edit, but preserve some of the vivacity of that original brainstorm. When you are brainstorming, you usually have more sentence variety and more natural turns of phrase. Use those moments to let your voice shine.
2. Write As You Speak—Almost
If you’re stuck on this concept, ask a friend or your teacher (or yourself, if you’re good at multitasking) to type what you saw as you explain your topic in your own words. Most people are comfortable speaking aloud; they’re not encumbered by grammatical errors or thinking about elevating their vocabulary. They speak plainly and clearly. Try transcribing some of that naturalness and using it in your academic writing. The key is always to be clear, and what’s clearer than a good, simple explanation.
3. Leave Out The Slang, The Idioms, And The Cliches
As much as you want to bring some personality to your academic writing, you don’t want to make it seem too voicey. By that I mean, you don’t want your reader to start to think of your writing voice as a character. It’s still an academic essay, after all. Avoid going too far into colloquialism by leaving out any slang, idiomatic expressions, or cliches. Don’t call subjects or characters guys, don’t say that something was cool, don’t say that he was mad as all get out. These phrases, while they add some color to your sentences, undercut your good ideas and lose you the credibility you are trying to gain as a writer.
4. Read Editorials And Opinion Pieces
If you’re grasping for inspiration, try reading editorials or opinion pieces in the newspaper. These are researched “essays” grounded in the writer’s take on a topic—just like an essay. They often employ strong visuals, humor, satire, sarcasm, personality—all while maintaining an elevated tone and making an organized, well written argument. Try and dissect the moves those writers are making and incorporate them into your repertoire.
5. Know Your Audience
Tone is key in any piece of writing. It’s important to strike the right notes, especially if you are trying to find your writerly voice. Your audience is often your teacher or your class. Keep that in mind. They are reading this to see if you’ve given thought to some material. They want to hear your opinion. They want to evaluate your skills. They want to be entertained. Knowing that, how might you lead them through your argument? How might you illustrate one point, then the next? Show your audience that you are a comfortable expert on this topic. Your writing self should sound like you—but a version of your that’s been edited for clarity, organization, and cleverness.
This is a very difficult skill, and it’s one that even professional writers are constantly working on. The best practice is writing—in all kinds of forms. Creative writing can help you experiment with description and figurative language in ways that you can bring into your analytical writing. Take every assignment, no matter the genre, as an opportunity to find your voice, further develop your ear, and become something that all writers aspire to be: someone who uses language with precision so that anytime anyone reads something they’ve composed they’re moved to say, yes, I never thought of it that way but that’s exactly right—I know just what they mean.
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