Finding A Distinct Writing Voice and Writing Style

Recently I reread the chapters “Simplicity and Clutter” from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Though I read this book years ago and didn’t get much out of it, this time around, the clouds parted, the sun shined, and a rogue wave knocked sense and clarity into me. Of course it’s impossible to have a distinct writing voice and writing style, I write with clutter!

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon… Simplify, simplify.”

–William Zinsser (On Writing Well)

I tend to add prepositions to verbs needlessly (“free” becomes “free up”), add superfluous adjectives to nouns (“friend of mine” becomes “personal friend of mine”), use tiresome phrases instead of simple words that mean the same thing (“now” becomes “at the present time”) and oh, do I turn nouns into verbs (“access” becomes “accessing”), though not as much in my writing as in my speech. How embarrassing and yet, humbling!

I’m getting the help I need. “Hi my name is Kemi, and I am a recovering writer who clutters,” I confess with my head hung in shame.

clutter without Distinct Writing Voice

But, that’s how I learned to write when I was in college. That’s how I learned to write growing up here in America, where the greater number of SAT words I can stuff into a sentence, the smarter and more authoritative I seem. Seeming is believe in the land of the “free” for some, and home of the “brave” assumptions.

So, here I am trying to be an honest writer and an effective communicator without sounding pompous and without boring my readers. How do I do that?

Developing Your Distinct Writing Voice And Writing Style

What is a Distinct Writing Voice? Is Writing Voice the same as Writing Style? I thought I knew the answers until I did some research. The best explanation of the distinction between writing voice and writing style that I found that wasn’t annoyingly vague and didn’t make my head hurt was from Writer’s Digest:

“Here’s one way to think about it: [Writer’s Digest] tries to have all its articles fit a similar style—conversational yet straightforward. But between the covers, each piece is written by a different author whose own voice colors his particular piece. So the continuity of the magazine stays together, but each piece is still different.” –Brian A. Klems (The Difference Between Voice and Style in Writing)

So, as I understand it, Writing Voice is the distinct way you use words and language, setting you apart from other writers, while Writing Style is more about how you tend to structure your sentences along with the tone of your writing.

I believe I have a unique personality, but I don’t think my writing reflects that yet. At least not consistently. I’m still too verbose for my liking. And still fighting off the tendency to write academically.

In all the articles I have read so far on how to develop a distinct writing voice and style, it seems that being aware of your world view–the way you view the world; your values–and who you’re writing to are necessary components of voice and style discovery.

“No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

–Oscar Wilde

Discovering Your Unique Way of Looking At The World

Anyone who knows me even a little while knows that I am opinionated. Though I seem to have an opinion about everything, I don’t. Many things, yes. All things, no. Truth be told, I don’t care about most people and most things. Who has the time? I’m just passionate about the certain people and things that I do care for AND I like to play devil’s advocate and squash assumptions. Especially when they’re about me or commonly held assumptions about anything that I know not to be true.

For example, I like kind, thoughtful, useful and genuine people. I cannot stand gratuitous ignorance, laziness, greed (in all forms) and  self-entitlement. I feel compelled to speak out when people with anyone or all these traits intentionally, or unintentionally hurt other people directly or indirectly. I’m not fond of dishonesty either. I imagine a beautiful hell–on earth, not the Biblical kind–where the profoundly ignorant, lazy, entitled, greedy and dishonest are force fed knowledge, activity, humility and integrity intracranially via tiny nanorobots. Not sure how that would work. Don’t care. Just make it happen science!

I also value humor, if you couldn’t tell.

Knowing Who You’re Writing To

I struggle to find my reader. Or rather, I struggle to trust my reader. I worry that my voice or what I want to say may be at times too specific, at other times too harsh or too soft. I hold back a bit. Still building confidence to let the world into my writing heart. I’ll get there.

Regardless, I write to my people, my tribe. I imagine there are people out there in the world who would easily understand what I am saying, or are open to hearing what I have to say. I imagine there are smart (street smart and a little bookish), curious, self-reflective people out there who are real adults trying to be as genuine in this world littered with peacocks and ostriches.

Melding Style With Voice

Writing style, again, is the tone and the choice in words and sentence structures (diction).

“The tone may be objective or subjective, logical or emotional, intimate or distant, serious or humorous. It can consist mostly of long, intricate sentences, of short, simple ones, or of something in between,”
–Wheaton College’s Writing Center Style, Diction, Tone, and Voice


On my hunt to discover my distinct writing voice and preferred writing style, I read some articles describing the 4 distinct writing types: expository, descriptive, narrative and persuasive. And because I want to write for magazines one day soon, I read some articles about different magazine article types. I love reading magazines–on and offline–like Seed, Time, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Scientific American, Psychology Today, The Economist, The Onion, to name a few.

This article listing 11 Popular Magazine Articles That Editors Love to Publish does a good job describing magazine article types I often see: profile, expose, informative/survey, humor, historical, round-up, human interest, essay/op-ed, inspirational, research short, and how-to articles.

These articles about writing and magazine article types don’t specifically talk “style”. But, they did help me figure out my writing style. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

The worst books and articles are those overflowing with vitriol without nuanced perspective or a fact or two that can anchor a strong argument. They can read whiny or hateful depending on the venom and tone.

Out of the 4 common writing types, my preference leans toward persuasive and occasionally descriptive. I use expository writing sparingly because I hate explaining processes logically and sequentially; makes my head hurt. My brain does not bend that way…without force…and bribery with sweets of some kind. I rarely if ever write narratively, which is no surprise since I am a nonfiction writer. Though, sometime in the not-so-distant future I might write fiction.

Out of the 11 magazine article types, I prefer op-ed articles, or essays, since, as I wrote above, I am quite opinionated. I also like the idea of inspirational articles since these articles describe how to feel good, how to feel good about yourself, offer a moral message, etc. However I don’t like to get too preachy since I believe morality is more fluid than many people–with sticks up their asses–would have us believe. There I go with my opinions again.

I also thought about the types of articles and nonfiction books I like to read. Besides books and articles by writers with a distinct writing voice, I prefer a conversational style that’s both personal, without too much narrative, informed, without feeling academic, and with a little humor if and where appropriate.

The worst books and articles are those overflowing with vitriol without nuanced perspective or a fact or two that can anchor a strong argument. They can read whiny or hateful depending on the venom and tone.

Given that I like to persuade, give my opinions, don’t like to stand on ceremony in my writing–or in any capacity–and I’m clearly trying to get away from academic writing, my preferred tone is conversational and emotional; subjective with moments of objectivity; serious or humorous depending on the subject or even part of the article; and with a sprinkle or douse of intimacy, depending on the subject and how much I am willing to bleed on the page….or screen.

As far as diction, well, I’m still suffering from verbosity, but I do like the feel of a pithy paragraph and simple words. I’m working on it. Goodbye.

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