Updated: Nov 28, 2021
When an author’s voice connects with me as a reader, I can get obsessive. I binge their prose like Netflix and collect their books like Pokémon cards. Meanwhile, in the moments I’m not engrossed in their books, I read their short stories and essays, learn the turning points of their career, and find interviews to hear how closely that author’s speech resembles their written tone. It’s a form of brief obsession.
Even if this sounds a little extreme on the surface, I bet most writers desire some fraction of this curiosity from their readers. We don’t want our work to be just another forgotten article on the internet. We don’t want the books we’ve written to be left eternally bookmarked only a quarter of the way through on a dusty shelf. Because the level of author curiosity I’m describing has a name. We call it fandom.
How do you gain true fans as an author? I’m not talking about occasional readers or the passing approval of a Clap on Medium. I mean: Someone loves your work so much, they must have a little more.
Voice in writing is the intersection of substance and flair. It is the personality of the storyteller on the page, the trusted voice of a friend telling us their story. But how do you find your own?
The good and bad news about finding your literary voice is that there are no shortcuts. We unearth our unique writerly voice by first returning to the foundation of all sound writing advice:
Read great authors
Write more than anyone else
1. Read great authors
The most consistent way to find great writing is to step away from the internet and read traditional media. Pick up a book or magazine. These works have usually been vetted with greater scrutiny than the average article you find scrolling Facebook, Medium, or even most opinion blogs on Forbes or Inc.
Yes, there are many exceptions to this rule. But if you don’t know where to discover great authors, start in your local bookstore — not your Facebook feed. And when you step into your bookstore, you have a few ways of approaching learning from great authors: technical and observational.
The technical approach to improving your writing involves reading style manuals. If you want a clear examination of how good writing works, there are literal books on the subject. I’m a fan of books like On Writing by Stephen King, Draft № 4 by John McPhee, or The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker.
In fact, my favorite argument for reading books about the craft of writing comes from the prologue in The Sense of Style. Pinker writes:
“I love style manuals… It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing. It’s that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice.”
These books pull back the curtain on successful authors so we may glance at their processes and techniques. Learn writing straight from the masters.
By observation, I simply mean you should pay close attention to your favorite works as you read them. Pick apart every good sentence. Annotate books to remember the writing tools your favorite authors use to tell their best stories. Step back from the page to notice why certain books and articles pull you in. Defining great writing requires some subjectivity. So find the voices that resonate most deeply with you. Pay attention to the author’s use of language, syntax, and tone. Do you notice a structure in how they tell a story?
For example, my favorite nonfiction books are written in such a way as to make their readers feel smart. The authors — notably David Quammen and Michael Lewis — write about complex subjects without dumbing things down or going over their readers’ heads. How? Through use of analogy, good storytelling, and a description device I’ll call “getting on the reader’s level.”
Quammen and Lewis are both journalists by trade. They will often break the fourth wall in their prose to bring a complex idea down to earth. They may crack a joke about how they didn’t understand that last paragraph either. Or they may follow up a complicated description by saying, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to remember that. Just remember X.”
Both authors clearly know a lot more about the subject of their books than I do. But their styles purposefully elevate me as if I’m to their level of understanding. The result is that I feel smart, even reading complex things I don’t (yet) understand.
These are the sorts of stylistic choices you want to pick up from reading great authors. Then, you want to put their styles to practice by outwriting everyone you know.
2. Write more than anyone else
A lot has been written about the importance of deliberate practice. This is different from what most people consider practice, which is simply repeating the same action over and over. Deliberate practice involves repetition, but by contrast also requires some form of feedback, training, and a focus on one’s weaknesses. Where most people naturally lean into their strengths, deliberate practice requires you to locate and strengthen your weaknesses.
Anders Ericsson spent most of his life studying the habits and practices of elite performers. In his book, Peak, he writes,
“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”
That’s why I regularly encourage writers to pursue publication. Writing for a blog or magazine requires you to put your work into the world for rejection, feedback, and editing. You learn quickly what works and where you still need to improve.
If you want your writing to remain private, another option is to work with a critique partner, someone you meet with regularly to exchange feedback for each other’s work. I have never used a critique partner in a formal capacity, but I did marry a strong writer and editor, who isn’t afraid to give harsh feedback. Best. Decision. Ever.
The keys to improving your writing — reading and writing — are straightforward, but no one said this path was easy. It takes years of regular writing practice to consistently publish beautiful prose. But as you push forward, and glean from the work of skilled authors, your writing gradually grows clearer and better. From clarity, you uncover a unique voice that’s some fresh amalgamation of your way of thinking and the borrowed writing styles of your favorite authors.
Eventually, your voice is distinct on the page, and readers begin to follow you — even binge you work — for the friendly familiarity it offers. And what could be more rewarding than having a couple of fans? It’s among the highest writerly compliments. And I wish you many.