Allowing Your Blogging Voice to Evolve

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.

Welcome to the Hill Center of today. The former Old Navy Hospital has undergone a makeover into a thriving arts center on Capitol Hill. Join me there on September 24th for the beginning of my six-week course on blogging.

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  • Write a series of posts–unpublished to start–in an attempt to emulate that voice.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?”

Begun during the U.S.Civil War to treat war wounded, the Old Navy Hospital was completed in 1866, one year after the war was over. It served Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans for 40 years or so before the Navy made it a training facility. Now you can take my blogging class there. Makes perfect sense.

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:

Dear Gump,

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.

Sugar

How important is voice when you read your favorite blogs?

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About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

28 Responses to “Allowing Your Blogging Voice to Evolve”

  1. Great post!
    Voice is the first thing I notice when I read a blog, and it’s 60% of the reason I return to that blog, every single time. The other 40% is content that’s relevant to me. Voice beats content in the blogging world, IMO, if the voice is inspiring and leaves me motivated and eager to write or engage.

    • Hi Vero,

      Thanks so much for the comment! Yes, voice is certainly a pull for me as well. It’s not unlike what essayist or novelist I want to read, but it’s almost more important in blogging because you have so little time to grab the reader; a compelling voice certainly helps!

  2. Very important. Voice is probably the real reason why I follow and why I choose not to do so. Content is interesting, but if I’m not moved by the voice of the writer, it won’t suck me in for long enough.
    Nice post.

  3. Wow. I can’t remember how I found your blog, but I’m going to bookmark it so I don’t lose you again.

    Like most of the people responding here, I am a “voice reader.” When I find an author I like, I glom everything they’ve ever written, and I don’t care what the subject matter may be. Not surprisingly, then, I am also a “voice writer” — and seem to attract other “voice readers.” I try to warn my readers that if they don’t like the first book of mine they read, they should probably move on. But now I wonder. Not everyone is a “voice reader.” Maybe the readers who judge a writer by content rather than voice should be encouraged to try a different book of mine.

    I am always looking for really good reasons to tell people to buy more of my books. So thanks for the inspiration.🙂

    Diane Farr
    not a marketing genius
    blogging at bestbyfarr.com

  4. Very nice post, Patrick! And timely, for me. I have been thinking lately about some general changes I need to make in my blogging and how that worries me, but I feel reassured reading this. My voice will stay the same, and the changes will be gradual. I feel pretty relieved, actually. And I loved the example of Dear Sugar.

  5. What a great post, Patrick! I really like the distinction you make between style and voice. That’s something I’ve heard writers ask about and ponder so many times, and this breaks it down so simply.
    Voice is one of those elusive things: it comes easiest if the writer just lets some part of his/her personality out onto the page, I think. But the question is always ‘what part’? The samples of Strayed’s column are perfect examples of this: this first being so fun and irreverent, and the second being tough and tender.
    Deciding on a voice might boil down to a matter of deciding who is listening, and what might be the best way to reach them. The old expression: Know your audience, fits here.

    • Hi Cynthia!

      I’m glad you like that distinction, it’s something I picked up in my MFA program and applied to blog posts. Yes, voice is elusive, but when you “find” it, it feels like you’d always had it.

      And yes, it’s about your audience. When I write a press release at work, it’s a different “voice” than here. Well put.

      Hey, what do you think of the new WordPress theme? I’m not copying yours anymore!🙂

    • Cynthia… yes, you’re absolutely right about “who’s listening”. I know that when I’m speaking on the phone to certain people, my chitchat is full of fun and rambunctiousnous. And with others it’s businesslike and boring. So, yes, knowing who’s reading and in what spirit… that has a radical effect on my “voice”. Thanks for picking up on that.

  6. Patrick, I love your recipe and criteria for a blogging voice. It reminded me right away about the know (distinctive) like (personal) and trust (familiar) factors often written about in regards to marketing goals and purpose for bloggers.

    You’ve given me really good food for thought how I can move forward in my evolution as a blogger without alienating my existing readers and staying true to what I want and need to write at the same time. I think it’s essential that a writer try and remain as authentic as possible when writing blog posts, or rather work at not resisting what comes naturally and not reject it for a replacement voice of what they may erroneously think their readers will want to receive instead.

    p.s. I love the new WordPress theme for The Artist’s Road🙂

    • Carole Jane, always great to have you here, and I’m glad this voice piece “spoke” to you!🙂 And thanks on the theme, it works for now. This is actually the fourth theme I’ve had in the nearly two years of the blog, and I think I’ll stick with it for awhile.

  7. Patrick and Carole,

    You have explained my reaction to a blog that I recently found on the history of my hometown. In reading the obviously well-researched and obviously beloved theme over some 30 long blog entries on the history of one of the city’s prominent members, I noticed occasional spelling errors that weren’t the typical typos you find in unedited blog text, but rather words spelled the way the blogger thought them and pronounced them in the local vernacular. Sometimes that can be a turn-off and cause readers to question the authority of the author and reject the content along with the incorrect form, but in this case, at least for me, it actually served to established the author’s voice and made the entire story more authentic, more intimate somehow. I don’t know if the author intentionally included or left the errors, although I doubt it. If he did, he was successful because he certainly managed to convince me!

    • Ah, vernacular writing. Yes, that can be a very powerful way to write, as Mark Twain taught us. It’s also pretty difficult to do without coming across as contrived or insulting, but it sounds like your blogger did it right. Thanks for sharing that!

  8. I’m not surprised at all you’re teaching this course again, Patrick. You did an excellent job and I think it’s an important (and fun) subject to think about. Congratulations!

  9. Another thought provoking (and well-crafted) post! I’d no idea Strayed employed such a snarky voice when she began Dear Sugar. Having read Wild and her more recent Dear Sugar posts, I sense the later “voice” is more authentically hers (though the first does come off quite naturally). To my ear/eye, voice is the single most compelling aspect of writing for a reader … and I believe it evolves, changes, and grows as we do. One can be a whiz with construction but, without an engaging voice, he/she will have a tough time drawing readers in … and keeping them in. I absolutely love the way you’ve broken it down here! Since I began this round of blogging (I blogged anonymously in the past about a social issue), I’m experimenting with tone. Because my subject matter can sometimes be heavy (mental illness and brain trauma), I attempt to move between my more humorous, “irreverent” voice and my more contemplative one. We’ll see if my experiment works out. Again, great post.

    • Hi Terri,

      You have a very compelling voice in your blog. You make the reader feel as if we are in a room together, talking over tea. That’s not easy to do.

      I was hoping you’d read this piece because I remember your Wild posts. Yes, Strayed inherited a “voice” when she took over Dear Sugar, but she made it her own, not just with voice, but with the way she made it so much about connecting by sharing her own stories, a perfect build-up to Wild.

      Glad you liked the post!

  10. As one of my MFA instructors said, “Voice is everything.” I’m often turned away from lengthy blocks of blog text, but if the writing is great and the message compelling–especially with a consistent voice readers come to rely on–then I’ll stick around.

    Patrick, although you’ve declared that you won’t do “the-name-other-blogs-and-things-about-you-part” on these blog award chain letters, I’ve still nominated yours for a One Lovely Blog Award. (I’ve also skipped the “about me,” but you might find interesting links to other creatives/writers there): http://paper-pencil-pen.blogspot.com/2012/09/one-lovely-blog-award-paper-pencil-pen_11.html No need to follow the “acceptance” instructions–just enjoy the basking.

    • Nicole, thank you so much for the nomination! As I just commented on your blog, while I don’t pass these awards along, I am always grateful to receive them, and I think they’re a great way for blog readers like us to find other blogs!

      I like what your MFA instructor said. It’s true for me as well. If you engage me with your voice, I’ll follow you anywhere.

  11. What a fantastic post, as usual! I have no doubt your course is going to be excellent. I loved the Cheryl Strayed example. I often advise people who are just beginning blogging not to worry too much about setting a theme or a voice because it will develop over time. As it does, so too will the following. And once people connect with you they’ll stay with you as your live evolves and changes (and your voice with it).

    • Thanks, Julie! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the tweet! That’s good advice you give on allowing your voice to evolve, and I like the way you note that your voice can change as your live evolves and changes! I’m going to have to reflect as to what extent my voice on this blog has changed over the last two years as I’ve experienced changes in my life.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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