The art and craft of blogging is on my mind as I prepare to teach my next six-week workshop, “Writing Compelling Blog Posts.” I’ll be teaching on Capitol Hill in D.C. this time, starting on Monday, September 24th. If you’re local, I’d love to have you in the class. If not, then I’d welcome your feedback on the post below, which I’ve extracted from my curriculum materials.
A strong writing voice allows you to stand out in a crowded field of bloggers. The two questions I most often hear from students on this topic are 1) “What exactly is a ‘blogging’ voice,” and 2) “What happens if I want to shift my voice but I already have readers enjoying the voice I’ve adopted?”
Let’s move quickly through the first question, and then I’ll provide examples of a highly successful author/blogger to answer the second.
A blogging voice is no different than any other writing voice. It is:
- A touch of the distinctive, helping you be remembered for more than just your content.
- A touch of the personal, connecting directly with readers.
- A touch of the familiar, providing a comfort level for readers when they return.
What is your voice?
- It is your tone, describable with adjectives such as authoritative, intimate, self-deprecating, snarky, whimsical, or nurturing.
- It is not your style, such as your sentence length, word preference, narrative structure, choice of topics or themes.
How do you find your voice?
- Decide what single word you would like your readers to say when asked their impression of you after reading a single post.
- Read other bloggers, journalists, editorialists, and creative writers who you would describe with that word.
- Note the stylistic elements those writers employ to create that voice.
- Write a series of posts–unpublished to start–in an attempt to emulate that voice.
“That’s all well and good,” the student replies, “but what happens when I decide the voice I’m employing no longer fits with what I want to write? If I change, won’t I lose my existing audience?”
It’s a reasonable question.
First, let’s remember that even if your “voice” changes, your “style” likely won’t. Your writing will still be familiar and comfortable to readers. Authors will adopt different voices from book to book, but their style often is quite consistent.
But the most important thing to remember is that blogging is just another type of creative writing. If you allow your voice to evolve naturally over time, and you do it well, you’ll hold on to your existing readers and gain far more.
Let me conclude with an example of a blogger some of you may have heard of. Cheryl Strayed is the author of this year’s bestselling memoir Wild. For two years prior to the book’s publication, she was the blogger behind the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column on The Rumpus. Ms. Strayed was not the original Sugar. When she took over the blog, it already had a defined voice, one filled with snark and sass. She carried that forward. Here’s an excerpt from Ms. Strayed’s first post as the new Dear Sugar (March 11, 2010), responding to a letter writer with dating problems:
I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican, but as I ponder your situation, I can’t help but quote the most bewildering right-winger of our times. Of course I’m talking about the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who said: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Shall we start with the known knowns, when it comes to your little triangular quagmire, Gump?
a) You found your ex-girlfriend to be crazy and broke up with her.
b) You fucked your ex-girlfriend’s ex-best friend for a fortnight and felt “connected.”
c) In spite of such connection, your ex-girlfriend’s ex-best friend donned a wig and announced that she has no interest in continuing to fuck you, claiming to be on the brink of a (presumably) monogamous and eternal connection to someone else.
She socks us in the teeth with that opening line. We also know, just from this short snippet, that the writer is humorous and direct, a good combination for an online advice column.
Now let’s skip ahead about two years, to Ms. Strayed’s last Dear Sugar column before revealing her true identity (which she did just before the publication of Wild). This time she chose not to answer a letter from someone with dating problems, but from someone struggling with stuttering:
Dear Ashamed and Afraid,
Last December I took the baby Sugars to a winter solstice ritual at a hippy retreat center in the woods. The ritual was held just after sun set in a big community room in an old lodge, where maybe sixty of us were packed in. There was drumming. There were speeches delivered in mystical tones by people bedecked in beads and feathers about the symbolic meanings of north, east, south and west. There was chanting followed by ten minutes of total silence that even—miraculously!—the baby Sugars managed to endure. And then there was a great joyous ululating celebration in which we together welcomed the darkness.
After the joyous ululating died down, the people who were bedecked in beads and feathers lit a fire in the fireplace and before it they placed several giant loaves of bread. We were all instructed to take a hunk of the bread and, from that hunk, take one bite. The rest was to be cast into the fire. The bread we consumed represented what we wanted to bring into our lives, to take in, or make manifest, they explained. The bread that went into the fire represented what each of us hoped to shed or push away.
When I reiterated this symbolic business about the bread to the baby Sugars they looked at me blankly. They couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of bringing something that wasn’t a material thing into their lives and it was even more difficult for them to understand the notion of casting such a thing out. They did not have any real desire to be stronger or purer or better. They believed themselves to be that already. To them the word manifest means only bread in the mouth.
This is as it should be. They are children—so irrefutably of one piece that they’re incapable of making the psychic move it takes to see themselves from even the slightest distance. But you know what, sweet pea? You aren’t. It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing something out—the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter—and taking something in—the fact that you have the power to redirect the blow-torch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.
Quite a difference, right? If you’ve read Wild, you’ll know that Ms. Strayed can be quite direct, but her book’s voice is more reflective of the recent post. In just two short years, the Dear Sugar column evolved from a quick-take snark-a-thon about sex to a moving share-my-life inspirational. And you know what? The column grew in popularity during that time.
Let me also note that Ms. Strayed began breaking some of the “laws” of blogging in adopting her new voice. That first post above was short–a mere 359 words–and used bullet points rather than long blocks of prose. That second post is 1,242 words, and features no bullet points. What allows her to get away with it? Good writing.
If Ms. Strayed had shifted this dramatically over one post, it would have been jarring, and she likely would have lost viewers. But when it happens incrementally from post to post, it is natural. Let me conclude by noting that the tenderness you see in that second post wasn’t new; it was just expressed in a more personal way. Here is the end of her answer in that very first Dear Sugar post, to “Gump”:
Lastly, there are the unknown unknowns, the things, Gump, that you don’t know you don’t know.
a) You have nothing for these women.
b) These women have nothing for you.
c) And yet.
d) And yet!
e) You are loved.
How important is voice when you read your favorite blogs?