Under “Class Philosophy” in my course syllabus, I include a list, “What I hope you’ll learn about writing and yourself as a writer,” and the last bulleted item is the following: “recognize, appreciate, and build your writing voice.” On the first day of class last week, students got into groups to present their section of the syllabus to the rest of the class and to ask questions about the material. One student asked, “Why is it important to build your writing voice?”

“That’s a good question,” I said, and then stared off into the back corner of the room hoping a succinct answer was scrawled on the ceiling. That’s not true. I knew there was no answer on the ceiling, but I do stare off into the distance when I’m thinking hard. And that question demands some intense thinking.

I’m not sure what I answered, but I remember being long-winded as I fumbled for words. What is voice? How does a beginning writer recognize his or her voice? Develop it? Play with it?

I like what William Zinsser says in On Writing Well at the end of his chapter entitled “Style”: “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going” (23).

“Believe in your own identity and your opinions”–this may be the sticking point for younger writers, especially those fresh out of high school. If your voice has been pulled, pushed, and prodded by formulaic writing assignments, standardized testing, and uninspired reading selections, then your identity and your opinions have not had much exercise or play time. Developing your writing voice means experimenting, trying on vocabulary and tone, playing with sound and syntax. That kind of writing growth requires time, dedication, mentors, feedback, inspiration, critique, practice, practice, practice.

I still haven’t answered the question. Why is it important to develop your writing voice?

Because that’s the art and craft of writing. That’s why I want to read your writing–because your voice is you, and I want to get to know you and your ideas, see what I can learn from you. Because voice is infinitely variable and creative. Read a short story by Lorrie Moore. No one else writes like she does. If you know Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, you’ll always recognize a Brooks’ poem, even with her virtuoso range of poetic style.

If you have not yet developed your writing voice, no worries. Keep playing. You’ll know when you sound like yourself.