Find your voice as a writer

feature image of a french loaf for the article how to find your voice as a writer

Long before I had anything to write about, I wanted to be a writer. My confidence stemmed from my proficiency in English alone, and that I had read as much as my library cards and friends’ generosity allowed me. This put me far ahead of a lot of my peers in communication, creating the bubble of a ‘I am a good writer’ which shattered in the first few months of my undergraduate course. When I read the work of peers, I realised their writing had qualities that mine lacked:

  1. Memorability: How much of a book or article you remember after reading is the true testament of how good your writing is. Do you use words from it much later? Does it enter daily life and speech? Does it remind you of something or someone from your own memory and life?
  2. Emotionality: Great art, no matter what the medium, moves you. It tugs at your emotions, probing and poking you to feel things you never have before, with an intensity that jolts you out of a routine, and allows you to experience the beauties and terrors of being human in a full-bodied capacity.
  3. Playfulness: Our education system trains us to believe that great writing is a function of great gramamr. Yet every piece of good art will always play with words, and forgo rules and bend the language to get as close as it can to what it wants to say.

Reading my peers made me see my writing in a different light. It was trite and stiff, and wholly lacking in personality. How could I be a better writer?

Write everyday. Read a lot. Read widely. Have great characters. Outline your stories. Give details. Edit edit edit.

Every writing course and piece of advice touches upon these or variations of these tips. They did not help much – yes they helped me write faster, but they did little to add spark and sizzle in my sentences, and this absence only got more conspicuous as I started my career as a journalist with Hindustan Times. They tell you what good writing is, but not how to get there yourself.

How could I find my voice as a writer then?

I kept this question at the back of my mind for many years, as I continued to read and write, hoping that someday, epiphany would strike me, and I would find that unique voice, not just as a writer, but in general communication.

The answers and epiphany did come, but not all at once. Then earlier this year, the team at C4E suggested I take a Growth Session on writing, and I think in prepping for the question, I got close to that otherwise elusive answer: How do you find your voice as an artist? That session, then became two sessions (title Thoda EQ, Thoda IQ: How to find your voice as a writer), and a Twitter thread, and this is a longer, more contextual version of that.

The problem is that when we talk of learning to write better or communicate better or create more real art, we focus too much on the ‘IQ’ – or the faculties of the mind. Write everyday is a matter of focus and discipline, reading and outline, editing and including details all tell your brain what you need to do.

But art is not about the brain alone. In teaching writing, we forget to take into account all the emotional parts of ourselves that stop us from being a better writer, and write something that sounds like you. And those are the more difficult ones to overcome, the least talked about and often entirely ignored when one even proclaims, “I want to be a writer.”

And this EQ component has more to do with a behavioural analysis of yourself, than any writing hack. So here are the 10 behavioural explanations of what could probably be stopping you from writing your best work. Or thinking you cannot write.

Unlearn Mistakes are Bad

We spend the better part of our most impressionable years being penalised for making mistakes. Be it at home or in schools, in public or in private. It conditions you to believe that holds you back from trying. From writing your first draft knowing its not its best version yet, from experimenting with your writing for fear of breaking a rule of grammar, and worst of all, for fear of it failing with your readers. The fear of mistakes will stop you writing with abandon. So it’s important to unlearn this.

If you are not afraid of mistakes, you will write everyday and more frequently, without the knawing anxiety that not all of it is good. Or that all of it will be used. You will not be afraid of edits. And most of all, you will not be afraid to start.

Express, don’t impress

It’s natural to want to impress the reader – hells I want people to be left speechless when they read my words. I want them to cry and laugh and love me for it. I want to walk red carpets and have book tours. But.

But but but. That cannot be the lens of my work. Or yours.

If you write to impress, you will subconsciously write what you think will be well-received, according to your own observations. And whether you try to or not, if you are writing with the ideal reader or reaction in mind, your writing becomes theirs first. It will become homogenous (like bot-like clickbait headlines which have become the norm because they are written to impress Google’s algorithm, not express what the writer really wants to say).

Express first. Say what you want to say. Write what you want to write. Let it lame or cool, let it have been said before, let it be unoriginal. Let it be bitchy or cranky, a sob-story or a narcisstic one. Do not self-censor and just type down what you really think. The rest will take care of itself.

You are not your words

If you have been finding it difficult to express, there can be one more reason to it. Self-consciousness. As writers, we put a lot of ourselves into our craft and it is not unusual for us to become a little attached to these words, placing a big part of our identities in them. Sometimes, that stops us from writing embarassing, gory, cringey, and things that we assign negative labels to.

Have you ever written about masturbation? Does the mere thought of writing about a enjoying the raw flesh of a human being gore you? Or are you shy that your romantic fantasy of wanting a perfect spouse is too corny? I had these hang ups, which in turn showed in my writing – it was a whitewashed version of what I actually thought. Detaching my own identity from what I wrote was a big step in becoming a more confident writer.

Side note: For me, a lot of this self-consciousness came from social anxiety and a general lack of self-confidence. Working on these issues liberated my writing, and I was far more free and far more real talking about them. So it sometimes helps to understand what causes you to assume your words as your identity.

Develop Nunchi

Most tutorials will tell you that great writing is about people and conflict. Create memorable characters. Create multi-dimensional personalities. The answer is around you.

Characters are people, so to think of complex characters you have to learn and absorb, without judgement, the complexity of humans and the world around you first. An approach that has helped me do this better is nunchi, a Korean philosophy of social listening (Euny Hong has written a book about it).

The crux of the philosophy is the art of social listening, observing and taking stock of the energy and mood of your surroundings, an eye-power that when cultivated, helps develop a deeper emotional intelligence. It’s the “art of understanding what people are thinking and feeling“.

And what else do you need to write great characters?

Read the news

All writing is political – a product and reaction to the social, political, economic, cultural mileu that you are exposed to. You may agree or disagree with some things, want to change others, but they all stem from what we see around us and the trends and currents that are necessary to move our world forward.

To write well, to express, to create layered stories, you must understand these concepts well. Be in touch with the reality of your times. Read newspapers and magazines, read widely differing political views, read more than the headlines and follow the stories of your city, your neighbourhood. Distill this. Choose what you think is right or wrong, not what your parents tell you to. Develop and independent opinion of these news events.

At the very least, it will help you understand how perspectives differ, and stories and narratives can look vastly different depending on the side you choose. It will help you build your view of our world, and this uniqueness will reflect in your writing.

Research the hell out of everything

Textbooks that good writing should include relevant and specific details. To do that, you have to develop an endless curiousity – everytime you think you something, dig deeper. Ask questions, find out the whys and whats and hows and whos. Research, contradicting perspectives (like I said before), giving an unbiased-but-attentive listening ear to the gossip, the history, the backtory of something, following up, reading up, will add up – and help you paint that full picture, build the detailed world in your writing.

As Rudyard Kipling once said, this curiousity will be your best friend in your journey as a writer and artist.

Use Chunking

Like a lot of things, we are trained and conditioned for linear thinking. Time moves forward. We ascend or descend. We go forwards or backwards.

What you think you write. If you think in linear directions, your writing will imbibe that quality, and while its logical, its hardly playful or unusual. Train yourself to think in chunks. To connect disapparate chunks and find patterns and analogies outside of linearities.

Chunking allows you to break things down to pieces and then fit them together in as varying and quirky ways as you want. Connect things seemingly unconnected. Like taking less travelled roads, and off-beaten paths. Down which, the great stories hide.

Read beyond your reading levels

You have to read a lot and read widely to write better. But you also have to read above your reading levels.

Good writing is not about fancy words, but it is about descriptive and precise words, to know what things are called. Language is not the only tool but it is a very essential one in your life as a writer and you have to keep these tools sharp (lest you sound like chatGPT).

In language, the sharpness is define by your ability to say exactly what you want to say in fewer, but very specific words. And to do this, you don’t have to just read widely, but regularly go through the pain of reading what is considered a difficult read.

When I first read Lolita (the same year I discovered what my writing lacked), it took me a few days to get through the first 25 pages. I had to look up every word, and re-read every sentence multiple times in light of these new found meanings.

The impact of this exercise was powerful. Not only did I experience the surreal feeling of being physically moved by them (at some point I had tremors in my hand while reading), but it also taught me a lot of about the higher notes and rhythms of language that everyday conversation, or language classes and writing teachers could just not have.

The medium matters

Write in a note-book. Switch off the internet on your laptop. Use this software or that software.

The phyiscal medium on which you write also becomes a big consideration. But before you take any one piece of advice as gospel, think about which devices you are most comfortable with.

I love note-books, and even today, I make notes and pointers long-hand. But I have long-lost the ability to write pages and pages of material in a physical notebook. I use the phone far too much and the laptop after that.

But even among these devices, there is a clear pattern in what I communicate where. The phone, through messages and notes and diary entries, has become an extension of my emotions. I have texted friends long stories of how I feel, what I think, where I am in life. On the laptop on the other hand, I do all my email work, my project outlining and criticial technical thinking.

So if I try to sit and write a story on my laptop, its going to take on a more formal avatar, and on text or phone, a more vulnerable one my real self.

Each medium has found a place in our lives and instead of romanticising the writing habits of those who came before us, we need to embrace our own patterns and build on that.

Engage your senses

I started this essay to tell you that we focus too much on our IQ and too little on our EQ in our quest as writers. Emotions and feelings are one part of it. The last piece in this journey is to learn to exercises the muscles of your other senses – working on developing your sense of hearing, taste, smell and touch.

The more we have modernized the more able-bodied people have relied on their brains and sight alone. But a fullness of experience means being one with your body, with these other senses that complete the perception of anything.

The best way to engage these senses is through movement that uses more body less mind. Trek. Hike. Rock climb. Go on a wine tasting or cheese tasting. Hear how different foods affect your palete. Feel textures of the grass and wood and leaves and barks and cold metal and hot air. Pick up the sensory cues through it all, and see how then the words (or the music and the art) flows not just from your mind, but your body, heart, and soul.


Not all these steps will apply to you. And you don’t have to know and read everything all at once. These are chunks of advice that have helped me overcome my hurdles as a writer, and you have to take them as just that – chunks. Not a step by step guide to writing, not a linear set of rules or advice. Just a walk through of the problems I have faced and how I overcame them. Hope they help you the same.

Want to talk more about it? Tweet to me @pramankapranam or email me at prakrut[at]purplepencilproject[dot]com