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How to Find Your Voice and Style When Writing Your Memoirs
Finding Your Voice in Memoir Writing

There is perhaps no greater importance to writing than a writer's voice. Because each of us is unique, we must find a way to translate our uniqueness to the page. The spoken word and the written word are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The reader should be able to identify the voice of a person in both speech and text. You would not mistake the spoken or written voice of comedian Chris Rock for politician Barak Obama, would you? The same goes for all of us. You must resist the urge to emulate your favorite writers and instead tell your story in a way that best reflects your personality and uniqueness as a human being.

The memoir, in particular, requires a conversational voice. All memoirs are written in the first person singular. That means that you, the narrator of your story, uses the word "I." Akin to the work of the newspaper columnist, the memoirist writes in an informal, conversationalist style so the reader feels as though he or she is being spoken to.

Be Yourself

One of the most common mistakes of novice memoirists is that they tend to write out of character. Rather than write in their own voice, they will write in a voice that they either want to be or think the reader will find more interesting. However, a New York stockbroker writing in the voice of a good ol' country boy will nine out of ten times reek of dishonesty that will turn the reader off.

Novice writers are often intimidated or insecure with their "voice" and will make the mistake of trying to mimic their favorite authors. Whether your favorite writer is Ernest Hemingmay or Maya Angelou, you must understand that trying to emulate that writer only masks your voice and confuses your reader.

Our writer's "voice" is the way our words "sound" on the page. Write how you speak. Are you friendly, formal, direct, or chatty? Do you use everyday words or is your vocabulary more high-brow? How would you define your speech pattern? Is it choppy, proper, or poetic? Our voice is a reflection of our experiences. Where we are from, how we were raised and educated, what we read, watch, and partake of all contributes to the make-up of our voice. To deny any of this only denies the truth of who we are and who we are trying to convey on the page.

Developing Your Voice


The best way to become a better writer and develop your voice is to become a better reader. All writers read. All great writers read a lot. And do not be picky; read anything and everything. Bad writing is just as illuminating as good writing. Sometimes learning what not to do is a greater lesson than learning what to do. Read fiction, non-fiction, biographies, memoirs, diaries and matchbook covers. Storytelling devices such as theme, plot, pace, tension and character development will become more ingrained. The more you read, the more you will understand what does and does not work for you.


The second best way to become a better writer is to write. Of course, you say, but you would be surprised to find how many "writers" do not write. The bottom line is, writers write. Write every day. If you are not writing your memoir, find something else to write about in order to sharpen your instincts and develop your voice. You must dare to be a bad writer. You cannot allow fear and insecurities to stunt your growth as a writer. Keep a journal or blog. Write a letter. Write about some aspect of your day. Describe your journey to work as if you were writing a travelogue. Write an editorial about something you saw on the news or read in the newspaper. Most importantly, write for you and do not think about your voice. When you write a letter to a parent or sibling or friend, do you think about your voice? No, you just write.

Once you have a stockpile of your writing, have a close friend or family member read your work and then ask the person a series of questions.

1. Did the work sound like me?

2. Does my writing have a rhythm? Did it flow?

3. Do all my sentences sound the same?

4. Do I have favorite words and/or phrases that I repeat too often?

5. Were my thoughts coherent?

6. Was the writing conversational or too formal?

7. Did I take risks or was I safe?

Challenge Yourself

"Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say." ~ Sharon O'Brien

Whether you like it or not, not only do you not know it all, you do not even know everything about yourself. In order to truly find your voice, you need to let your guard down and write from a raw and honest place. The more you write about yourself without the fear of judgment, the more interesting and complex parts of you will be discovered. Learn to push your own buttons and challenge your preconceptions about yourself. Force yourself to think and write about subjects that you disagree with. Or better yet, scare you. If you are conservative, explore something liberal. If you are religious, write from the point of view of an atheist. The more you challenge yourself, the more you will understand your own truth. Remember: There are no bad drafts. As writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "The wastebasket is a writer's best friend." The point is to just get it onto the page without filters.


As with anything in life, we gain the most satisfaction from participating in that which we are passionate about. Writing is no different. Unless you care passionately about the things you are writing about, you will find it impossible to discover your true voice. Truth lies in the heart and soul. Find it and it will resonate with your reader, regardless of whether or not he or she shares your passion for the subject. Passion is universal.

Writing Exercises

"Every writer I know has trouble writing." ~ Joseph Heller

As we have already mentioned, writers write. We need to constantly write in order to sharpen our craft and find our true voice. However, when you are still in the early stages of this process, it is often difficult to decide what to write about. That is why writing exercises tend to be so helpful.

Some of the best writing exercises are designed to stimulate your thoughts. Rather than call for you to write coherent essays or stories, a good writing exercise is more akin to brainstorming. Perhaps one of the best exercises is list-building.

List-building requires you to compose lists of people, places, events, or things that evoke an emotionally charged response from you. For instance, list the five most painful days of your life. Because all that you are required to do is write down these days with little explanation, you are not hindered by the actual writing. Instead you are free to remember and reflect on your past without any expectations.
How to Get Started

The first step is always the hardest. Perhaps you know exactly what you want to write about but do not know where to begin. Or maybe you have an idea but have not flushed it out. Or maybe you have many interesting stories to tell but no idea where to focus. Regardless of your situation, there are several ways in which you can prepare yourself so that when you begin writing your memoir, you will avoid some of the traps that derail many aspiring memoirists.

Self-reporting Techniques

Your memoir will be all about a period of time in your past and how you currently interpret that time. The first thing we need to do is get into the habit of self-reporting. Although you will find that you are already familiar with many of the following techniques, try to become more conscious of how they inform others of who you are.

Letters, Newsletters, and Blogs

For most of the last century, letters were the primary way in which people kept in touch with one another. Then came the proliferation of the telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, and texting that threatened to eliminate the long form of communication. Fortunately, the advent of newsletters and blogs have this more detailed form of communication making a comeback. To better hone your skills as a memoirist, try writing a blog or family newsletter.

Job and School Applications

Nearly all of us have had to fill out some sort of application that required us to write down pertinent details of our lives. Although most of these applications do not require you to present much of a narrative, they do force you to list major events of your life in an ordered sequence. This is a fundamental technique of memoir writing. To make better use of this technique, try adding more events and focusing on the main events of your life, such as births, deaths, relationships, jobs, moves, and travels.

Online Profiles

Once used mostly by children and teenagers, online social networks such as MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook have grown in popularity among all demographics. When you join one of these networks, you decide how you want to present yourself within that network. What you say and what you leave out will help you realize how you want strangers to see you.

Keep a Journal

Writing a journal is the cousin of the memoir. Getting into the habit of chronicling your daily life, while at the same time adding introspection, will only benefit you later when you begin writing your memoir. Journals are also beneficial because of the personal nature in which they are written. Because journals and diaries are not intended for an audience, you tend not to worry about what you write about. Without filters, your writing is honest and daring.


Addicts in treatment usually go through something called a moral inventory. This is a step that is designed to help people break free of the shame that binds them. By facing your regrets, embarrassment, and shame, you begin to see through the dark parts of your past and understand how they effect you. While facing your fears is certainly a scary prospect, it is an important step to establishing truth in your memoir.

Finding the Way Into Your Memoir: An Exercise

The jumping-off point of your memoir is not always obvious. Finding a way in can become frustrating really fast. That is where writing exercises are excellent devices to help focus your thoughts.

Take any 10-year period of your life and write just two pages about it. Every sentence must be exactly three words long, no more, no less. You will soon find that being confined to three-word sentences forces you to stick to what is important. Half of writing is deciding what to leave out. This does not mean that only things like love, marriage, career, parents, and death make the cut. On the contrary, you will include what sticks in your mind. If you have a memory of your first break-up, maybe you decide that the smell of your significant other's hair was more important than what he or she was saying. Many times, leaving something out makes what is kept that much more powerful.

Get Organized

Are you always searching for your leads or notes? Do you forget great ideas?

Here are eight tips to help you stay more organized:

1. The more you research and read, the more articles, clippings, and notes you need to store. Create your own system that helps you remember where to look for things.

2. Try using color-coordinated folders to file your research and writing.

3. Prioritize your items. Keep the items (notes, books, materials) that you use or refer to most often nearest to you.

4. In addition to hard copies, create folders on your computer. Make sure to back up these folders regularly.

5. Clean out your folders and files from time to time and cull unneeded items.

6. Do not use shorthand. Write your thoughts in longhand to avoid confusion.

7. Record all sources immediately.

8. Finally, write down every idea no matter how unlikely you think it is that you could forget it.

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