Find Your Writing Voice – By Starting With Your Heart

by Ali on November 29, 2010

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Ali-ThinkingPhoto by the awesome Antonina

I had several reasons for taking an MA in Creative Writing – including “getting student discounts”. But my main hope was that the course would help me find my writing voice.

I didn’t think I had much of a voice. I admired voice in others’ work. I loved Margaret Atwood for her rich, poetic language; Jasper Fforde for a unique brand of quirky sci-fi humour; P.G. Wodehouse for clever sentences and perfect comic timing.

And I didn’t think I could ever write like that.

Turns out, I was right. I can’t. Because I write like me.

Writing From the Heart

How much of what you write comes from the heart?

How much of it really grips you? And how much is just an exercise, something you’re doing for practice, or for money, or for a competition?

I started my MA writing short stories. They were reasonably good, in a technical sense. I’d won a couple of prizes. I was picking a competition brief – a title, theme, character – and writing a story of a set length (usually 1,600 – 1,800 words).

The stories had a lot of head-work going into them, but not much heart. Frankly, I didn’t really care about my characters. They were just neat ciphers on the page. It was a bit like playing the Creative Copy Challenge and only ever doing that. I learnt to write a competent short story – and never progressed any further.

My two tutors (Francis and Pam), independent of one another, gave essentially the same advice: write from the heart.

Write something real. Write something that matters.

That’s actually pretty damn scary. It’s hard, in a way that writing another neat little twist-in-the-tale short story isn’t.

In blogging, getting real means telling the truth – showing your mistakes, your less-than-perfect moments. I see a lot of bloggers start off guarded and slowly open up, becoming much more personable and engaging as they do so. (Charlie Gilkey has compiled some great examples of this in Becoming Yourself and Growing Your Blog.)

In fiction, getting real means writing something you care about. A story which you’re afraid of screwing up. Characters who get inside your head and inside your dreams.

I don’t know what you’re working on – maybe it’s a novel, or a non-fiction book, or a blog. But when you next sit down with your hands on the keyboard, ask yourself: is this real? Does it matter to me?

Stop Playing it Safe

During my MA, I started two big projects. One was my novel, Lycopolis. The other was the blog you’re reading right now, Aliventures.

There’s been times with both where I’ve struck out in some new and uncertain direction. I like to get things right. First time. Thing is, that’s a short cut to getting stuck and staying mediocre.

With Lycopolis, I got half-way into the first draft only to cut out one character entirely, and come up with a very different backstory for another.

With Aliventures, it took me even longer to realise that I wanted to write about writing, and for writers.

I’ve written novel scenes that I was deeply doubtful about.

I’ve written posts here on Aliventures which I hesitated to publish. (For the record? This is one of them.)

And often – in fact, maybe always – the times when I’ve taken chances and reached beyond my grasp are the times when I’ve learnt something new about what I want to say, and how I want to say it.

I’ve written the scenes which gripped readers, the posts which got impassioned comments.

If you’re struggling to find your voice, stop playing it safe.

Write something you care about. Tell the world something which matters to you. Because it’ll matter to them too.

What’s Your Message?

On Aliventures, my message is that writing is wonderful and challenging and will change you and your world.

In Lycopolis, I’m saying that people can be redeemed, imagination is powerful, and we get to decide who we are – for good or for bad.

And I don’t know what your message is, but I’d love to hear it. So stop worrying about not knowing what your voice is yet, and start speaking.

Write what matters. Take chances. Touch hearts.

You’ll find your voice along the way.

{ 5 trackbacks }

Why Writers Should Blog and Bloggers Should Write — Aliventures
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From The Experts: 5 Tips For All Writers | The Journal of Cultural Conversation
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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann Godridge November 29, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Very good analysis, Ali – and it exactly expresses what was wrong with my stories, and why I am simultaneously terrified and excited while writing the novel.

I wrote an extra fifty thousand words of my first draft in November…and although it needs loads of revision, there were a few parts that really worked…where I found a voice. Just another twenty thousand or so words and then I start revising!

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Ali November 29, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Congratulations!! :-D I was thinking of you during NaNo, nearly emailed you but figured I shouldn’t distract you. ;-)

So glad to hear it went well! Have sent you an email… :-)

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Jess Webb (aka Jessilicious) November 29, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Hi Ali!

“Is this real” Does it really matter to me?” is an excellent filter for writing! I know I certainly tend to get caught in writing things that don’t REALLY matter to me, I forget and take the heart of what I’m writing about, what I’m saying.

Thank you for this reminder!

My message is that it is possible to be yourself AND have a successful business that makes money. And now I’ll be more aware of how I’m really conveying that message when I’m writing – and I’ll put more heart into it. :)

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Ali November 29, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Thanks Jess! Great message — and a very true one. (I’m definitely very much myself here, and I also make money … yay!)

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Archan Mehta November 29, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Ali,

You need to focus more on the images/snaps/photos which accompany your blog posts, although I think you are doing an excellent job. However, there is scope for improvement. It will add value to your blog, to be sure.

I liked this one in particular. You, sitting beneath a tree, reading a book. This is a good idea and me thinks you are on the right track. It shows the real you, what you are like in real life. An artistic portrait that goes well with your writing, an image that conveys the right impression. We wish to encourage you, that’s all.

I am glad you do not try to copy others, however successful. You have struggled for years to find your own voice. You have worked hard to share your ideas. More power to you. You can only improve moving forward. Cheers.

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Ali November 29, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Thanks, Archan. I’m not sure quite what you’re saying about the images … when you say I need to focus more on them, could you be a little more specific? I gather from the second paragraph that you *do* like this one, but it’d be useful to know which ones aren’t resonating so well.

(Am planning to get a new camera for Christmas, so hope to take more of my own photos, cos I’ll soon run out of the ones from Antonina!)

Cheers!

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Archan Mehta November 30, 2010 at 2:38 am

Ali,

Rest assured, your images or photos are resonating with your readers and subscribers. However, I feel that you need to raise the bar and take your game to the next level.

It would be helpful to include snaps that showcase what is unique about you and your writing–in general, the work you do. How do you differentiate yourself from the competition. Showcase what is different, even eccentric.

You can start small by persuading your writer’s group at Goldsmith’s to pose with you. Also, you could include images from the charitable causes you espouse; the work you have been doing at your local church. Plus, show us images or photos of famous artists, since you are a literary artist yourself. See what I mean? Something along these lines. Hope this helps. Just thought the input would help your blog. Cheers.

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Archan Mehta November 30, 2010 at 4:02 am

Ali,

It would also be helpful if you could include snaps/photos/images from your alma mater, Cambridge. Cambridge is an interesting, old historical town. The possibilities are endless, to be sure. You could show us, for example, the artists who graduated from there–icons, especially literary masters. That would go well with your blog.

Another possibility: statues, portraits. Plus, the famous Oxbridge boat races with the greens and water as a background. That would have a soothing effect: it is also beautiful to be surrounded by such scenery.

What else? Images of youself, Paul, friends trekking through the woods–or having a jolly good time elsewhere.
The pub culture that was so much a part of your life when you were younger and drunk. That could tickle our funny bones. And don’t forget the amazing libraries of Oxbridge and London, please. Artsy stuff is nice. Cheerio.

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Ali November 30, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Thanks Archan … will see what I can do! Good point on literary figures in particular. And I could definitely get a few shots around Oxford. :-)

Paul and I don’t tend to come out terribly well in photos, but will see if we can get some good ones ;-) As for photos of us in pubs, well, there are a few, but the lighting tends to be pretty horrendous!

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Archan Mehta December 3, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Ali,

Trust me, nobody expects you and Paul–and others you may want to include–to look like movie stars.

You folks don’t even need to look photogenic.

Just be yourselves, post your pictures along with your blog posts, and we will accept you for being you.

And personally I think you and Paul are a handsome couple, to be sure, so there. Nyay-nyay-nyay-nyay (LOL).

If you present yourself, friends, family, colleagues, just as you are, well, we would appreciate the authenticity.

That can only help your blog and other stuff you have been involved in. Maybe think along these lines?

For example, I really liked the image of you trying to swing it and your lack of athleticism shows (LOL). At any moment, I felt you would fall down like Humpty Dumpty. Somebody, help Ali, I said, before running away…

These are the wacky sort of photos that capture the attention of your fans. Don’t be afraid to show off your funny side and don’t be shy of being a little weird.

Look at how weird Johnny Truant is—that’s why he’s my favorite writer…..oops…save for you, of course. Cheers.

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Ali December 4, 2010 at 9:36 am

Yeah, co-ordination isn’t my strong suite. Johnny is fantastic, but I’m no Johnny!

The reason you don’t usually see photos of Paul and my family & friends is because not everyone would be comfortable appearing on my blog. I’ve occasionally put up photos where it’s especially relevant (like the wedding ones) but I tend not to blog anything too personal about my family. It’s one thing being authentic on *my* behalf, but not everyone is comfortable with that amount of online exposure!

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Kris @Krazy_Kris November 30, 2010 at 5:29 am

Ah – “The Heart & Humor of Being Human” – that says it for me. What started off as a “dare” from my FB friends and likers has evolved into a little “blog” (eeek – I still don’t think I’m a blogger) which has provided me with a beautiful and unexpected tribe. While my snarky & very human commentary on nutrition and fitness (or lack thereof) is quite fun, the back story is how a successful, educated, capable, strong woman could have sunk so low. The other back story is my impending empty-nest. I was surprised that my non-snarky post reflecting on my pre-empty-nest grief received a response greater than my fainting at the gym (which I thought was a pretty good story). So yes, the connection happens with the heart.
Thanks again Ali ~
.-= Kris @Krazy_Kris´s last blog ..How to Get Out of Your Exercise Comfort Zone- Try a Workout Swap =-.

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Ali November 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Thanks Kris! If you blog, you’re a blogger, in my opinion. ;-) And it’s great that you’re finding a tribe, as well as bringing in more and more of your back story — you’re right that readers really resonate with those sorts of “from the heart” posts.

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Annette and Snoopy November 30, 2010 at 5:50 am

Hi Ali,

I just discovered your site thanks to Sid.

I’m very new to writing publicly and I’m really doing it all back to front. I just started writing my blog 3 months ago and now I’m finding blogs about how you should write…..

It was great to read your post and hear you say we should write from our heart. I write through my puppy’s eyes about all his adventures, he really has a huge place in my heart. I’m never stuck for inspiration (so far!) and I find it hard to keep the posts short as the words just flow……

The other reason I know I write from my heart is I’m having so much fun doing it. It’s also been amazing to connect with so many like minded people as I pursue this blogging adventure….

Annette and Snoopy :)
.-= Annette and Snoopy´s last blog ..Everyones a Winner! - =-.

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Ali November 30, 2010 at 12:08 pm

What a creative way to write! Have you come across Alexander McCall Smith? He writes from a dog’s perspective in several of his books (not for the whole book, just occasional scenes) and does it very well.

I think we all get it a bit back to front … and frankly, it’s better to just jump in and start writing than to agonise about how to do it “properly”. Having fun is a great sign that you’re writing from the heart!

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Michael Pollock November 30, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Thanks so much for this, Ali. It’s a timely message for me. I recently published something on my own blog that felt interesting but uninspired, i.e. not something that really mattered to me; perhaps because of the way I composed it … all stiff and scientific. At least that’s what I imagine. It was a good lesson that, until now, I didn’t really have the language to understand, but could certainly feel in my soul.
.-= Michael Pollock´s last blog ..Author of “Flow” on Creativity =-.

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Ali December 1, 2010 at 9:28 am

I know exactly what you mean by “stiff and scientific” – that’s how my writing feels when I’m attempting something that’s all head and no heart. I find that I struggle with the style of a particular piece if I’m just writing it because I feel I should.

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Nikki November 30, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Thank you so much for writing this – I almost feel like you wrote it for me after our writing coaching session (which comes highly recommended by the way, readers)! However, I know a lot of people are faced with the same problem.

Funnily enough, I’ve always found I’ve written from the heart – often at the expense of the plot. I become engrossed in my characters and lose my focus. If I can keep my head and my readership in mind, your advice encourages me to keep typing away and doing what I love best.

Thanks, Ali :-)

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Ali December 1, 2010 at 9:26 am

Almost everyone I’ve coached has mentioned struggles with finding their voice – it struck me that it might be something the wider world would like to read.

Interesting point about going too far on writing “from the heart” – I think planning and editing are just as important as impassioned drafting! Maybe I need to write a post about that too…

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Lucy Mulvany November 30, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Thank you.

Last night I wrote a post through a lot of tears.

It was sitting in my drafts, where I suspected it would stay, at least for another year.

I just hit publish.

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Nikki November 30, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Lucy, that moved me to tears. So beautiful. And yes, certainly proves the power of writing from our hearts.

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Ali December 1, 2010 at 9:35 am

Lucy, thank you. And a sincere well done. I went over to your blog (left a comment there) and I’m really honoured to have been able to help you find the courage to post such a powerful and moving piece. It’s already obvious from the comments there that you’ve touched many hearts with it.

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Alex Blackwell November 30, 2010 at 8:37 pm

My message, and writing style, is simple: To share my heart and to touch the heart of others.

Alex

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Steve December 1, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I like what you have written here. I never too a creative writing class. I often wonder if it would have done me good or it would have taught me to write like someone else. For me, the best exercise I have ever undertaken was to just plain write. To put words on paper (or screen to be precise) and do it often!

Am I a well known author? (Pause for giggling and guffawing to die down) No. I am writing though!

P.S. Let me just say here that you look so much like a young friend of mine it is scary!
.-= Steve´s last blog ..It Takes Determination =-.

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Ali December 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Good point on just writing! I think there *is* a danger of taking classes or courses which lead you to write in a particular voice which isn’t your own … I didn’t see that happening at all at Goldsmiths (we all had very distinct voices and interests).

The one caveat to “just write” is that it’s important to make your writing a deliberate practice – Men with Pens had a good post on this recently: http://menwithpens.ca/dont-write-often/

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Ricardo Bueno December 1, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I think (feel) like I did some of my best writing when I first started my blog a long time ago. It’s because I was writing just for me. Building an audience was just a bonus, I was really just doing it for myself so my thoughts came out clearly and I really wasn’t afraid about whether people liked what I had to say (it was a bonus that they did, heh).

I’d like to get back to writing in that fashion. These days, I write things that I think people will find helpful. My message/tone: Seek to be helpful first. By writing How To’s and helping people question the things they do in their marketing. Do people find it helpful? I hope so :-)

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Ali December 2, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Being helpful is great – but that doesn’t have to be at the expense of being “you”! Perhaps people would find it just as valuable to hear your own experiences, thoughts and stories? It’s definitely possible to overdo it, but bringing in a bit of personal reflection can really help readers engage with your material.

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Hayley Huong December 2, 2010 at 5:56 am

The reason why I like your posts is that you are writing as a life-learner. You get experience from your real life, mostly your career as a writer, you reflect and share with us sincerely.
I really appreciate your work. You have your own voice, Ali’s voice from the Ali’s heart :)

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Ali December 2, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Thanks Hayley! :-D Yeah, I definitely want to keep on learning … well, forever. There’s always something new to explore, and there’s always potential for growth.

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FeistyWoman December 2, 2010 at 7:49 am

I have definitely found my voice.

I speak frankly from the heart through my mouth as well as through my pen. That’s the way I’ve always been.

You’re right, we can’t write effectively without the courage to say what we really want to say and I don’t want to write if I can’t write what I want to write. And my message is not subtle nor do I intend it to be, otherwise I’d be wasting my readers’ time, not to mention my own.

No one is going to remember something they read that didn’t inspire in them some sense of emotion or feeling. If we sound just like everyone else and our message is the same, they’re going to keep on scrolling. That’s just what they do when they’re uninterested.

Great post! You’ve described how to write from our souls very eloquently.
.-= FeistyWoman´s last blog ..Shallow Men- A Big Waste =-.

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Ali December 2, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Great point about inspiring emotion or feeling – I try to do that here on Aliventures, because I know how easy it is to just nod along with a post … then forget all about it. (So I’m glad this one caught your attention!)

It’s interesting that you find you can *speak* frankly as well as *write* frankly. I definitely find I’m more eloquent in writing than in speaking — so it’s awesome to hear from a writer who can do both!

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FeistyWoman December 3, 2010 at 12:10 am

Can’t really say I speak as well as I write but in both regards, I speak frankly. I love to be able to write well enough to speak my mind exactly the way I think.

I’m looking for blogs like yours not only as a resource, but as an inspiration. Yours is the first I’ve seen of its kind and thus far, I’ve plowed through a ton.

Your articles evoke a sense of importance in me because you can write. I don’t see in your work any typos or poor use of grammar we writers will notice without barely a glance. That’s what I look for before I’ll even try to decipher the message in a piece.

A lot of people have blogs but not many of them know how to write. You are a writer and a great one at that, so I take your message much more seriously.
.-= FeistyWoman´s last blog ..Your Man’s a Mama’s Boy Wuss =-.

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Ali December 3, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Thanks! :-) I tried to make this the sort of blog I like to read (I suspect we have similar standards…)

I definitely find that lots of typos and obvious errors put me off. I’m fine the occasional slip – none of us are perfect – but it’s generally obvious from a glance whether someone can write or not.

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Lindsay Oberst December 2, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I write a lot, including blogging, poetry, fiction, essays and whatever else.

On my creative writing blog, my mission is to help writers find their happy place. A lot of writers struggle between words, submissions and projects. I want to create a place for people who love words and who want to fuel this love.

Sometimes I wonder if I should get my MA in creative writing too. I haven’t decided if it would be worth it or not…
.-= Lindsay Oberst´s last blog ..Hint Fiction Can Help You Write Better flashfiction Creative Writing Tip =-.

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Ali December 3, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Great mission, Lindsay! I think there are plenty of writers who need to find a safe space for their work, where there’s not constant pressure to complete or to get something right.

I really enjoying doing my MA, but it’s not a light commitment (in terms of money and time). Most courses have open days so you can go and find out more … that’s what sold me on Goldsmiths. :-)

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Shane Arthur December 4, 2010 at 3:24 am

Hey Ali, thanks for the plug.

Writing from the heart is a liberating process. When people decide to do so, nothing can stop them, not even site imposed parameters constraining their creativity ( http://www.creativecopychallenge.com/creative-copy-challenge-22/comment-page-1/#comment-2199 ). Until I wrote that piece, I was carrying around a ton of anger, frustration, and sadness regarding members of my family. After I wrote it, I realized how therapeutic the process was. I could now let those hurtful feelings go. I could move on and forgive after that. I was surprised that what used to be a creativity sharpening tool for me, became w wonderful couch session.

Open the heart, and nothing can hold you back.

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Ali December 31, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Shane, that’s a hugely powerful piece. I think that getting emotion out onto the page is an important part of the healing process — writing involves creating a narrative, which can help us make some sense out of the bad things which happen. It also means externalising thoughts — seeing them in a new life.

Hope you and your family have a good Christmas and New Year, and my thoughts are particularly with you and your young son.

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Shane Arthur December 31, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Thanks Ali. I really appreciate that. You have a wonderful 2011, too.
.-= Shane Arthur´s last blog ..Creative Copy Challenge 105 =-.

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Pete Michaud December 21, 2010 at 1:32 am

I think you’re spot on Ali. The essay I write that get the biggest responses are always those I really FEEL coming out the chute. The ones that I expose myself in. Whether it’s talking about my challenges growing up or in business, people really connect when I connect with them.

Keep up the good work!
.-= Pete Michaud´s last blog ..How to Get Your Wallet Back =-.

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Ali December 31, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Thanks Pete! :-)

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Bill Sterling December 30, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Thank you for the great insights and encouragement. The hardest thing about writing from the heart is breaking free of what people will think of your style or content.
Bill

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Ali December 31, 2010 at 12:14 pm

I still find that tough! I’ve learnt to relax a bit … other people usually aren’t reading so much into it as you might fear. There’ll always be some people who don’t “get” you or who don’t quite like what you’ve written … but there’ll be others who’re your greatest fans.

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Mieke January 2, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Thank you. I am new to blogging but have always loved to write, usually for myself. I don’t know what my voice is yet and have been having a little difficulty writing the blogs I have written because of fear that I have nothing important to say. You have helped provide me with a little more courage. Thank you, again.
.-= Mieke´s last blog ..Ships Log- 2011- Day 1 =-.

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Ali January 6, 2011 at 9:55 am

Thanks Mieke. Keep writing, it really will get easier. I believe we *all* have something important and unique to say — sure, certain topics have been covered before, but there’s always room for a fresh look. Good luck finding your voice!

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Prime January 5, 2011 at 7:09 am

Dear Ali,

It took me awhile to read this but i guess because I had to digest every single word. I love to write. And im lucky that Im making a good living from something that I would do for free. But being a journalist for the last 15 years – esp working in a intl news agency – has taken its toll. I’m always writing from the head – thinking about my readers and what I need – that whenever I shift to writing something personal, I sometimes forget that I’m not writing this as a journalist. Which is why I returned to blogging – it’s not my livelihood so I can always write what I want. (You see this is the reason why I’m thinking of having you as a writing coach.)

This is a bit off topic but i read one of your replies to one of your commenters: I will say that I heard of Alexander Mccall Smith. I love his Isabel Dalhousie and Mma Ramotswe series (I even love his book designs!). And he isone writer with a very unique voice ( I read a lot of books and I have yet to read something that resembles his style

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Ali January 6, 2011 at 9:59 am

Thanks Prime! I can absolutely see that journalism training would make it tough to write from the heart — though I’m sure it’s given you loads of great skills (like being able to write concisely and to a deadline!) I love being able to blog here on Aliventures because, while I get paid to write for much bigger blogs, I’m free to write about anything and everything here!

Alexander McCall Smith does indeed have a unique voice — a very gentle way of writing. I agree he’s pretty unique, and I like it that way! :-) We’ve been reading his 44 Scotland Street series, and the newer ones set in London (Corduroy Mansions).

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farouk January 24, 2011 at 11:24 am

you are right Ali, the best posts are wrote were the ones i had personally experienced and so they were coming out of my heart , i also love the pictures at each post, very professional :)

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LycoRogue May 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm

I have to say that this post made me chuckle about two different things; both derived from your opener: “I admired voice in others’ work….And I didn’t think I could ever write like that. Turns out, I was right. I can’t. Because I write like me.”

1 – In college I was a major Steven King fan and unknowningly attempted to write in his voice. My professor HATED that, not so much because I wasn’t finding my own voice as “Steven King is a hack-job who must have sold his soul to the devil to sell books.”

2 – I finally did find my voice about three summers back – while writing fanfiction, ironically. Only to then read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels this past summer…. and then realize HE WRITES LIKE I DO! Talk about massive validation that my writing style IS sellable, but at the same time I have to chuckle that I borrowed Riordan’s voice two years before knowing what his voice was! :P

Anyway, great read and yet another article to add to the archives for Beta-reading assistance. ^_^
LycoRogue’s last blog post ..Liebster Award

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Ali May 14, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Glad you enjoyed it! I’ve never been able to get into Stephen King … not really sure why not, I guess his style just doesn’t fit mine closely enough. (For what it’s worth, style wise, my philosophy is to not let the words get in the way of my story … if people don’t notice my style at all, I’m good with that. But I’m still a teeny bit envious of authors like Joanne Harris and Margaret Atwood, whose words are so *rich*.)

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Domenica Eide January 18, 2013 at 12:22 am

Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!|

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