Writer’s Exercise: Finding Your Voice

If you find yourself staring at a screen for hours not knowing where to start, or you feel like you’re expected to turn in a term paper every time you sit down to write, this exercise is for you. I swear 98.1% it’ll help you feel more confident in your own voice.

Work lighthouse
“Hello? I’m looking for my writer’s voice; have you found it? ‘Kay, thanks!”

Finding your voice isn’t easy. I’ve been a professional guidebook author and writer for 15 years, and I feel like I didn’t start nailing it until about maybe three or four years ago. And here’s the best thing — I can be totally lazier in a lot of ways. Yes, yes, it’s more fulfilling and deeply satisfying and I will die feeling like I’ve shared the deepest expression of myself … blah blah blah. But say I have to write about Italy, calm or benefits communications? Where do I even start? Oh, yes. Irreverent and funny but insightful? Let’s start with that and see where I go.

Here’s the exercise … Wait, fuck that. There’s an even easier way to do this. (Yes, this is about creativity, but remember: this is also about pure and unadulterated laziness and the glorious shortcuts we can take to get to where you want to go faster.)

  1. Take five minutes to think of words that describe your writing voice, or the writing voice you’d like to have.
  2. Write down those words.
  3. Spend the next day to 70 years rewriting that list.

Done? Easy peasy.

Or, if you’d like (and only if you’d like), you can get a bit more involved than that. Here’s the full exercise I do with my interns:

  1. Find a group of people you like and trust (in fact, this is kind of the meaning of life, so do it even if you don’t want to do the full exercise).
  2. The first person (we’ll call her the Writer) reads or passes around a writing sample. There is no judgment or critiquing of any kind allowed whatsoever. Critics must sit in the mush pot.
  3. She then writes down (or has already written down) at least 30 words that describe her voice.
  4. The other people (the Listeners) jots down the five or six words on that list that most resonate with their interpretation of the sample’s writing style.
  5. The Writer gathers up and reads each of the Listeners’ lists.
  6. Maybe she finds a pattern in the Listeners lists, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she chooses a few words from the Listeners’ lists, maybe she doesn’t. These lists are purely for feedback, but the Writer gets to choose which five words she’d like to start with.
  7. Each Listener takes his or her turn as the Writer.

From either version, the Writer starts creating her voice. She writes her five, six, seven words or phrases down in her journal. She writes them down on post-it notes and puts them on her laptop, her bedside table, her bathroom wall.

And then, she will tattoo those words into her forearm like Popeye’s anchor, and she will live with them for the rest of her life.

I’m lying.

She will change them, and she should change them. And then she will change them again. And then once they’re all done, and she’s lived with them for 19 months, she will take a trip to Spain or develop a newfound skill as a baker. She will get in touch with her badass side. She will discover a new part of herself, of her personality, of her very being and soul, and she will change them again, because she has changed.

After these last fifteen years as a writer (twelve of which I’ve taught and coached writers), I don’t think all of my words have stayed the same for more than six months at a time. For now, here is the voice I try to aspire to:

Wry. Funny. Irreverent. Insightful. Unexpected.

One can only hope.

You probably noticed every single one of my words is an adjective, and not one has anything to do with travel. I’m partially inspired to write this blog post after finishing my first favorite Lonely Planet assignment ever, the Intro and six lessons for the book Calm. (My second favorite assignment ever, by the way, was for the book Lonely Planet Happy; are you seeing a theme here?) You can read my Happy Intro on the Writing page, as that is the closest I think I’ve come to nailing my voice.

Lists often start out as nouns and develop into adjectives. You might start out with adventure, camping, outdoors. Or luxury, hotels, food. Or even travel, writing, photography. But here’s the important thing: Start your list. Just start. Within six months, all of your words might have rolled over, but at least you’ll have something to roll over.


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