Last week I asked my Facebook followers if there was anything they’d particularly like me to cover in this series on blogging: here’s the first question –
“I’d love to hear more about how you developed your style as a writer, when you became comfortable with blogging and found your niche. Were there any things you thought would work really well that you ultimately had to let go?”
This is actually quite a difficult question for me to answer, because when it comes to writing, I’ve always been a “fly by the seat of my pants” kinda girl. I probably shouldn’t be admitting this on the internet, given that I’m a professional writer and all, but I, er, have never actually given much thought to developing my writing style: I think it’s something that happened naturally, through years of writing down every single thought that passed through my head, first of all in private journals, then on sites like Livejournal, and finally on my blog(s).
Sometimes I read posts about how to develop a writing voice, and I think, “OMG, I AM DOING IT WRONG.” And then I worry that I should be sitting down with a notebook and pen and saying to myself, “OK, today I’m going to develop my writing voice, and here is how I’m going to do it.”
It doesn’t work like that, though: or, at least, it didn’t for me. Because of that, I initially thought I wasn’t going to be able to answer this question, or to provide anything like “advice” on the topic, because the fact is, I haven’t really thought about it too much. Then I realised that not thinking about it too much actually IS my main piece of advice: so here it is, in official-looking capital letters and everything:
Don’t think about it too much
I’m not sure this is the advice “real” writers would give you (I’ve been paid to write my entire working life, but I still don’t think of myself as a “real” writer…), but I don’t think an authentic-sounding writing voice is something you create, or something you can force – because then it wouldn’t be “authentic”, would it? I think it’s something that develops naturally over time, and I also think the best writers are the ones who sound most like “themselves” when they write – i.e. their writing never sounds forced or awkward, it just sounds completely natural, almost as if you can hear their voice in your head when you’re reading. How do you develop the style that’s identifiably “yours”, though? Simple: you do it by writing. Which brings me to my next tip-that-isn’t-really-a-tip-but-is-just-me-thinking-out-loud:
You don’t get good at something without actually doing it, and people who are good at writing (or who have a strong writing voice) tend NOT to be people who only write very occasionally, and then sit down and labour for hours over one paragraph. Most of the writers I know write constantly, and have been doing it their entire lives: in fact, the idea of NOT writing things down is completely alien to them. How do people keep everything inside their heads all the time, without having to get it down on paper? I have no idea.
I’m the kind of person who feels like things haven’t actually happened to me until I’ve written them down, and I’m also the kind of person who often NEEDS to write things down in order to make sense of them. As soon as something even remotely interesting happens to me – and even when something NOT interesting happens to me, let’s be honest – I’ll immediately start turning it into a story in my head, which I’ll be itching to get onto paper. So I write a LOT, is what I’m saying here: and when you write that much, it would be hard NOT to end up with some kind of “voice” – especially when you’re writing for yourself first and foremost. Which leads neatly into my next point:
Write for yourself
By this, I’m not talking about the whole “I blog for ME!” thing that everyone likes to repeat. I’ve talked before about how I don’t think a public blog can even TRULY be written “for yourself”, and I don’t think it should be, either (not if you aim to turn it into a business, anyway). What I’m talking about here is ACTUALLY writing for yourself, by writing privately, without the expectation of what you write ever being read. Writing for yourself is totally different from writing for an audience, and it’s a good way to find your voice and develop your style. I’m not saying your “private” writing style should then become your “public” one – it goes without saying that you DO need to pay more attention to spelling, grammar, readability etc when you’re writing for an audience – but it’s a good way to practice, and to find a style you’re comfortable with.
For me, journalling was really key to developing my writing style. I’ve kept journals my entire life, and when I look back at my private journals from ten years ago, say (Which I don’t do very often, because, painful), I can see a lot of my current writing style, which grew from those long, rambling diary entries I knew no one would ever see.
Read. A lot.
When people ask how I “learned” to write (By which I’m assuming they don’t mean how I literally learned to write…), I always tell them that I learned by reading. All of the writers I know, without exception, are avid readers. I don’t know a single person who loves to write, but who rarely picks up a book – and I also don’t know many people who read constantly, but are unable to string a sentence together either. The two skills really go hand in hand, and when you read a lot, you pick up writing tips without even knowing you’re doing it. You also start to notice things you DON’T like about other people’s writing styles, which helps you adapt your own style to avoid doing those things. So, read lots of books, and call it “research” – it doesn’t really get better than that, does it?
Think about who you’re writing for
Another really important element of writing style is being able to adapt your style to suit different audiences. Again, this is something that sometimes comes instinctively – just as you probably don’t speak to your grandmother in the same way you speak to your best friend, you wouldn’t write a Facebook status in the same style you’d use for a job application or a scholarly article. In terms of blogging, styles will vary from blog to blog, but, for the most part, blogs tend to be a fairly informal medium, which is why I use a very “conversational” tone when I write here.
One thing I notice a lot, for instance, is that whenever someone famous dies, or there’s news of a tragedy, everyone I follow on Facebook and Twitter will post something along the lines of, “My thoughts go out to the family at this tragic time.” Now, that’s an admirable sentiment, and I’m not criticising people for wanting to say it, but seriously: who speaks like that? Other than the prime minister, when he’s been asked to make a statement to the press, that is?
This is the kind of overly-formal writing that really stands out on blogs and social media: I’m sure the people who say these things genuinely do them, but the hackneyed, “this is what you’re supposed to say when there’s a tragedy” statement comes across as quite robotic, and actually makes it sound less sincere.
Think about it: does this sound like a conversation you can imagine having?
YOUR FRIEND: “OMG, I can’t believe it! X celebrity has died!”
YOU: “I’m deeply saddened by this tragic news: my thoughts are with the family, and all those affected at this difficult time.”
I’m guessing probably not. Unless you have, like, a REALLY formal relationship with your friends, and they’re always quoting you on stuff. Which is weird, but anyway. Again, I’m not saying here that you should write EXACTLY as you’d speak, but if you can’t imagine yourself ever saying something, it will probably sound out of place on your blog, too.
But I’ve completely forgotten to answer the second part of Leah’s question, which – for those of you who’ve forgotten because it was SO LONG AGO, was this:
Were there any things you thought would work really well that you ultimately had to let go?
TONS of things, seriously. Too many to count. In the first part of the question, Leah asked when I became comfortable with blogging and found my niche. The answer is that I’ve pretty much always felt comfortable with blogging – writing is something I’ve been doing my whole life, and have been doing professionally for a large part of my life, so it’s something that feels quite natural to me. As for finding my niche, however – well, I actually found it very early on: my “niche” (if it can even be called that) is writing personal posts about my own life. My problem is that I didn’t realise that was my niche, because it didn’t seem like a “valid” niche to have. I felt that in order to be a “real” writer/blogger, I had to write about the kind of topics that magazines cover, or that other bloggers were writing about. All of the things I tried and had to let go were in that category: they were things I tried to do because I thought I should be doing them, rather than because I WANTED to do them, or felt passionate about them, so it’s not really surprising that they failed.
This brings me to my final point, which is that when you’re developing your “voice” as a blogger, I think it’s important that you be writing about things you feel passionate about. It’s certainly possible to write well about subjects you’re not remotely interested in, obviously (it’s how a lot of professional writers pay their bills), but if you’re genuinely passionate about what you’re writing about, it shows. We can’t all write about the things we love most, unfortunately: but when you do, you start to develop a writing voice without even thinking about it – and you also get to have fun, in the process!