Edit, not write, to find your own voice

I spend a lot of time editing.

When writing comes difficult, I’ve often found editing to be a productive method to use to get me focused again and to enable a return to vocalizing ideas. To this end, I’ve got something of a standing offer with friends to edit whatever writing of theirs they’d like me to—no charge, no reciprocation necessary, just me taking in pieces and polishing them up a bit.1 Doing this has made me realize the power of an individual’s voice in writing and just how it can affect the opinion being presented.

When taking in these pieces from friends, I encounter a lot of different voices and writing styles. One of my friends whose pieces I frequently edit has a very expressive, flowery style, while another has a more fact-driven, logical approach. Both styles allow the author to argue a point effectively, but what makes one author distinct from another is the style they choose to employ.

To really understand what I’m going to get at concerning writing styles, we’ve got to look at the Modernist philosophical movement. Though there’s a lot more to the movement than just what I’m referencing, Modernism was an attempt by artists (authors being the relevant sort here) to forward their messages in ways both direct and indirect. We see this really clearly with the (crazy excellent) writing of James Joyce, who helped popularize the idea that not only is the story of a novel important, the what, but also the way in which that story is told, the how of the writing. One of my favourite examples of this is found in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The writing in that book gets more convoluted and complicated whenever the main character, Stephen, is grappling with difficult ideas or trying to understand the significance of something in a big way. When Stephen’s having an easier go of life, though, the writing itself eases up and the language becomes far simpler to understand. Joyce was employing both the plot and his surrounding style in order to press on his readers the real message which he intended. (It’s no coincidence that Joyce’s work has an entire quarterly journal, published regularly since 1963, dedicated to analysing it, because this extra level of complexity made the interpretations of Joyce’s works far more numerous!) Modernism was an attempt to use artistic mediums—in this case, language—to say something about the works they were used to create.

Returning to my two friends and their styles, I find editing to be an educational experience, forcing me to walk the fine line between deleting their personal style—which tells readers about their message in an important way supplementary to the content itself—and refining it into a more cohesive whole. Assuming that these folks are at all conscious about how they’re writing (which I know them to be), it’s fair to say that the way they write is intentional. It’s important, then, to try to preserve that style as best as possible while preventing it from detracting from the message itself. With the flowery friend, I sometimes think a toning-down is appropriate to keep the message clear, while with my logical friend I sometimes suggest a bit more fire for their words to reflect the passion which I know they possess in their heart. This kind of editing is most reliably achieved when the editor and the edited know each other well enough that the editor can gather what it is the edited really means to say.

Through all this editing, I’ve realized something important about the nature of writing and words, something which Joyce and his Modernist friends grasped and carried out so effectively: it is just as much about how you say things as it is what you’re saying.

A dry, academic tone on the most interesting subject will still manage to make that subject feel dry and boring. On the other hand, an over-zealous approach can also turn readers away, making them uncomfortable. Clear, concise, impassioned reasoning will always win out over either of the two, because it appeals both to people’s desire for knowledge and their desire to feel.

If you don’t know what that voice or style feels like to you, the best way to figure that out is to actually edit things yourself! Trying to discover it by writing can be a futile process, because you’re more likely than not to get stuck and bogged down writing with the same old voice you’ve always used. Through editing you might find that that voice doesn’t present the right version of you and your thoughts that you intend it to—seeing the “mistakes” in others’ writing is far easier than in your own!

One other thing that leads to figuring out that voice is being honest and respectful in your writing. Those two things, when combined in a considered manner (considered meaning that respectful doesn’t require you to always be nice, but that you should always be appropriate), lend an air of genuineness to your writing. If how you say your message is just as important as what you’re saying, then I reckon being genuine is a pretty good way to do it.

Edit a ton. Realize that your writing may not be saying at all what you mean it to. Edit your own words to bring it there, and then bring in others who really know you to help you along further. Asking for help is one of the most genuine things you can do.


  1. Side-note: If you’d like me to do some editing for you, I’d be happy to oblige. Feel free to send any piece of writing you like to me and I’ll do my best to help you out. (Fair warning: if you send me your master’s dissertation, I may take a bit longer to get back to you.)

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