There are a lot (and I mean a LOT) of articles on writing blogs and blogging-specific websites that tell you that you need to “find your voice.” Those authors say that this is something that you need to work very diligently on, especially early in your writing or blogging career.
Rarely however, do they tell you exactly what you need to do to find that voice, or even give a clear understanding of what it is. They treat it as though it's a mystical entity that you will only find after days of fasting and a good, long chat with a spirit bison or a ghost weasel. Why is that?
Because they're dead wrong. That's why.
Now, it's not that they're trying to deceive you. They're not. It's just that they don't quite get it, either. They have been misled, like the rest of us, from the beginning. In fact, this article was originally going to be yet another one of those articles about finding your voice and putting it to work for you.
Until the truth hit me right between the eyes…
You already have a voice, both a spoken and written one. You woke up with it this morning and you'll go to sleep with it tonight. It was with you when you read the last blogging superstar telling you that you needed to find “your voice” or heard it misrepresented by some well meaning author who doesn't quite get it either.
The term “voice” is misunderstood
Actually, it's terribly misunderstood, even by professional writers and bloggers. Here is the definition of voice, which sums it up pretty well:
The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book.
To further define this, the definition of voice regarding grammar in a standard dictionary states:
Grammar A property of verbs or a set of verb inflections indicating the relation between the subject and the action expressed by the verb: “Birds build nests” uses the active voice; “nests built by birds” uses the passive voice. Also called diathesis.
So. By definition, “voice” is the manner or style in which you put words on a page or post. If you write in the same way you talk, you already have a distinctive voice. When fiction authors use the term, it is usually meant to be the voice of a fictional character in a story. Since 99% of bloggers don't invent a fictional blogging persona complete with back story and byline, it's a good bet that using the voice you already have is a good way to go.
(I'm not saying that a blog written by a completely made-up person wouldn't be a really fun project, it would. But that's a post for another day.)
It's all about tone
Most often when someone refers to finding a voice in blogging, they really mean “setting the tone.” The voice of an article can take two forms:
The Active Voice
The Passive Voice
Or, if we think of this in terms of style, voice can be thought of as either:
An Informal Voice
A Formal Voice
The formal voice is authoritative and informative, while the informal voice is conversational and friendly, but that's about as far as “voice” goes in blogging. From there, it's all about the tone of your voice, not the voice itself.
The tone you set is what will get your reader's attention. It's what draws them in. While a voice has one or two states, the tone can convey any number of emotions, such as:
Of course this isn't a definitive list, but I'm sure you get what I'm saying. You already have a voice. What you need to focus on when writing is the tone you want to set, not in creating some new “you” with a different writing style to write your post in.
That just sounds like too much work to me.
Using your voice
As we've stated, you already have your own voice. You don't need to invent a new one. The things that do make up your writing voice are style, grammar and punctuation. If you write in your speaking voice, these things will come through quickly and naturally.
For instance, it doesn't seem at all out-of-place for Paula Deen to use the word Y'all. It's the way she speaks, and even in her writing, it comes across naturally. It would be quite odd however, if she were to use terms that didn't fit in, like “shizzle” or “OMG!” (OK… It's a good bet that almost nobody should ever use “shizzle” any more.) But for a 20-something writer who hails from somewhere other than the deep South, “OMG!” might not seem out-of-place at all.
This isn't to say that you should avoid proper grammar, spelling and punctuation in your writing. You shouldn't. But there are times when a run-on sentence or the use of a local term are more than acceptable. These things make your writing unique. It's that uniqueness that will help readers remember you.
In general, writing for the web should be short and to the point, but there are guides for that. The thing to remember is that you are not only allowed to just “be yourself”, but it's generally a good idea in the world of food blogging. If you write as though you were talking to a friend or a group of friends who are all sitting around the same table together, you're much more likely to connect to that invisible visitor on the other side of the screen, because they will feel like they belong there.
Voice and tone in harmony – Some examples
Now for the tricky part. You have your voice, but what tone should you use in your posts? The answer, unfortunately, is “It depends.” There is no right or wrong answer, but there are a few things to consider.
In my case, my voice doesn't change between the different blogs I write. I'm just “Jerry.” The tone at Cooking by the seat of our pants tends to be a bit light and off the cuff, where posts written for my namesake blog and guest posts, like this one, tend to have a more serious tone (but not too serious).
But this isn't about me, it's about you, so let's look at a few other bloggers. The first two I have met and spoken with at length on several occasions, so I am personally familiar with their voices, both spoken and written:
Elise Bauer: Elise writes in a fairly formal voice, but in a very relaxed tone. (Which is also how she talks in person.) Reading her blog is like sitting at her kitchen table, chatting and enjoying a moment of the day. Her posts tend to be short, but every single word fits and a complete story is told. You walk away from the experience feeling like you've just caught up with an old friend. Which is exactly what a visit to Simply Recipes should be.
Stephanie Stiavetti: The fabulous Stephanie Stiavetti takes the opposite approach in her posts on A Culinary Life. She uses an informal voice with an energetic and perky tone. (Again, she's like that in person. Or more accurately, she's a whirlwind in person.) Her writing is quirky and spunky. If you don't smile at some point when reading her work, you've missed something. Through it all though, her passion for food shines. She makes you want to try what she's describing, and try it now.
While I don't happen to know either of the following gentlemen personally, I have been a fan of their work for years. Both are passionate, but not in the same way. Both are experts in their respective fields, yet go about presenting that expertise in very different ways:
Matt Armendariz: Matt's voice is informal with a tone that is energetic, friendly and casual. Reading an installment on Matt-Bites is like taking a ride on a roller coaster. It's energizing and full of passion. You're sure that if you ever got to meet this man, there would be sunshine in your day, regardless of the weather. His ability to write positive, inspiring posts is nothing short of amazing.
David Lebovitz: David however, writes his posts in an equally informal voice as Matt, but with a more casual, less energetic tone. It's still just a conversation with a friend, but in his case it's a laid back conversation over coffee in Paris. The tone fits with what David is and where David is as much as Matt's, Stephanie's and Elise's tone fit who and where they are today.
All four of these bloggers got to the top of their field because people want to come back, read more and connect with the person behind the words. All four are masters at getting the reader involved in their story. Some of them might have been born with this skill, but more likely than not, it's one they have practiced and honed over time. It's one that you'll need to polish as well.
There are infinite examples of great bloggers out there, and you should find those who inspire you and read them often. Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” This is most definitely true. To continue to grow as a writer, you have to read, and read voraciously. You will never improve your craft unless you get inspired to do so by others in your field.
This is not to say that you should try to write like your favorite blogger! Remember, you woke up with your own voice this morning. Trying to be something that you aren't will make your writing fall flat or sound insincere.
And I'm not just saying that.
When I first delved into the world of food writing, I did my level best to write like those who inspired me. Those posts have never quite worked for me or my readers. They are on a short list of things that I need to rewrite from scratch, in my own voice and tone, because while the recipes in those posts are great, the words on those pages just aren't mine. They don't resonate. A great recipe should have a great story to go along with it, not a steaming pile of drivel as an accompaniment.
If you write in your own voice, with a tone that fits the “who, what and where” of your life, then your words will resonate with your readers. They may have found your blog while searching for a recipe or restaurant recommendation, but your voice and style are what brings them back.
It's OK to change your tone and style over time!
Times change. Situations change. Our life experiences are what makes us who we are. These are the things you need to let through in your writing. As a blogger, your readers expect to see you change and grow. It's very rare to see a writer who hasn't modified their style or tone over time. It's normal. It's a good thing. It means you're getting better!
Read, get inspired, then write.
Get out there and read. Find a blog that moves you and read 10 posts. Grab your all-time favorite cookbook and run through a few dozen pages. Crank up your MP3 player or home entertainment center, grab a cup of your favorite beverage and then write. Use the voice you woke up with. Be proud of it. Shout it out into the crowd. It's about time you did, because we've all been waiting to hear it.