Playing Games with Stephen Hawking—How to Find Your Writer’s Voice
Wanna learn better ways of shaping your writer’s voice? Play these games.
His voice is the last one I hear before I add my latest blog post to my website.
Okay, it’s not actually Stephen Hawking. I’m not allowed to use his voice. Did you know Hawking’s voice is copyrighted? Check out the origin story on that iconic speech-to-text here.
The first voice I chose was called Fred. Fred lives under the Speech function on my MacBook Pro and sounds a lot like that distinctive Hawking’s speak.
I like having Fred read all my work before it goes live. Initially, I read my own writing out loud, but I discovered it was best to have the computer speak for me to dive deeper into editing.
You see, that rigid computer voice helps me clarify every word I put on the page. It sounds so unlike me; I can actually hear ways to make me sound more like myself. Huh?
You heard me.
Editing experts often suggest that you read your stories aloud so you can catch mistakes. I agree with them. But I also believe having your writing read in someone else’s voice can make finding your own writer’s voice easier.
You’ll sharpen your storytelling skills and feel the rhythm of your prose.
It’s not unlike the writing advice that suggests switching fonts for editing. But for me, using a different voice has a more profound effect.
Other voices have rare inflections, they emphasize certain syllables, or they have regional accents that are vastly different from my own. Additionally, with the text-to-speech feature, you can also slow down or speed up the readings so you can find the right rhythm.
What I’ve discovered is if I can still sound like myself—in meaning and intonation—using someone else’s speech, then I’m inching ever closer to my own unique writer’s voice.
It makes editing feel like a game or a puzzle to solve.
Nothing makes me happier than when I hear Fred express exasperation after I’ve tried to convey exasperation on the page. It’s pure magic.
And no, I don’t have scary AI fears of Fred coming to life and stealing my work. At least not yet.
There’s still a lot about the text-to-speech feature that’s imperfect. But consider the imperfections a blessing to your editing. When the computer gets hung up on a word or pronounces something in a strange way, it’s a great tool to help you consider if your writing is clear enough for an audience.
Using a computer’s voice gets my attention in ways that reading my own work doesn’t.
Having a Max Headroom type trip over words is like an alert: Hey, you may need to revise your writing here.
I bet you hope to get as many different eyes on your book as possible. That means people are going to bring all kinds of biases and perspectives to your stories. The goal is to be so distinctive that no matter who is reading your writing, your words remain uniquely yours.
I’ll give you an example.
Someone posted a message on Twitter yesterday that I thought was offensive. I read it again and again to be certain. Around the 5th read, I realized I was putting the inflection in the wrong place. There were two possible ways to interpret the comment. Once I read it out loud, I realized I had shifted my emphasis to the wrong word. The poster was asking a sincere question, not making a snide remark.
Had I not read the sentence aloud, I would’ve believed the guy was a real jackass.
Use your speech-to-text feature on your computer as a final read through before you send out a manuscript or offer your writing to a beta reader. Find a way to make sure your voice sounds like you no matter who reads it. And fix any sentences that could have multiple connotations.
I love Fred, but I decided we needed to experiment with our relationship.
I’ve been playing with other voices available on my MacBook. There are so many options, you could choose one that closely aligns with the way you speak. But use a voice that isn’t too close to your natural one. You want to account for nuances in other people’s speech.
I’ve settled on a female voice named Ava. She’s an American English voice and her flow is a good fit for my work. I tried other options like Dixie. I thought having a southern girl read my work might help. But Dixie wasn’t the right kind of southern. She was a bit more Texas twang than the Georgia girl I am.
Plus, I can’t hear my own southern accent. I’ve lived in Phoenix for so long, I don’t notice myself slip into it when I’ve had too much to drink or when I’m on the phone shoutin’ at my mama.
Ava is a great neutral voice. I’d also recommend Allison, but I’ve found there’s a softness to Ava’s voice that’s not there with Allison.
And for fun, I added Moira—an Irish voice—to give me my software updates. Moira is the voice of someone who gets stuff done, so I need her to goad me.
As your writing continues to expand, you’re going to develop your own writer’s voice. Some of this happens organically. But there are literary elements, devices, and writing styles you can play with to shape yours.
Here are some writing games that can help take your voice to the next level.
Game #1: Put Words in My Mouth
This is an eavesdropping game that requires you to go outside and listen to people. This is not a new technique. Writers have been hanging out in coffee shops to overhear conversations for ages.
But you aren’t doing this to get new ideas. And you aren’t allowed to go to coffee shops.
Go to places like a doctor’s office waiting room, pet shops, florists, car mechanics, bus stops, the customer service desk at the grocery store. Anywhere you’ll find people talking, especially places meant for people to pass the time or ask questions.
When you get there, you’ll listen. Focus on the way people talk to each other. How do they approach the receptionist’s desk? How do they call and chat with friends?
What behaviors or words jog your memory and help you recall experiences in your own life?
What conversations are happening that you would normally overlook, but could help you see your characters or yourself in a new way?
I sat waiting for blood to be drawn at a lab once and overheard a woman chatting on her phone. She made a joke about her grandson wearing his “house shoes” to school. The use of that one word sounded ordinary to me, but her conversation was funny. This exchange happened in Arizona while I’m from the Deep South. I remember my mother using the term “house shoes” regularly. When I relayed the conversation to my husband, he had no idea what “house shoes” were. Those weren’t in his vocabulary growing up in Chicago.
Place and setting aren’t voice. But think about how people’s voices get shaped by their location. Not just the way someone sounds, but their politics, their religious persuasions, their long-held beliefs, etc.
Game #2: The Collection Challenge
Do you travel?
If so, what kinds of souvenirs do you pick up from the places you’ve visited? Are they knick-knacks that you put away for safe keeping or practical items you use every day?
I’m obsessed with tiny trinkets. Everywhere I go I buy little things that remind me how precious life and time are. If you look inside my purse, you’d find all kinds of miniatures I keep as a reminder to stay small and see the tiny details in life.
This was something I utilized in burlesque. In a world where bigger is, indeed, almost always better. Giant champagne glasses, enormous spider webs, and bras that reveal… well, you get the picture. Huge. Colossal. Magnanimous. Those were the words that were in vogue when I was doing burlesque.
Tiny was not.
But I made my mark with tiny. I created some of the most unique pasties in the business. When I played a teacher on stage, I created a pair of pasties with a pocket watch. The watch itself would pull out and snap back into place.
I had pairs of pasties with a bird’s nest and eggs, ones with bumblebees. Anything miniature I added them to my pasties.
What tiny things are in your world? Little things that you’d find at the bottom of your purse or that you collect inside your junk drawer? Perfume samples? Ketchup packets?
Why do you have them? Why would anyone keep them? What keeps you from throwing them away? What does harboring these items say about you? How can investigating the tiny stuff in your life help you better develop your writing voice?
Maybe you’re so focused on the big picture you’re overlooking key details that could help shape your style.
Game #3: Recipe Writing
Are you writing about someone significant from your family? Our great aunts or grandmothers didn’t learn to cook because it was trendy & they were obsessed with watching shows like Hell’s Kitchen. They learned out of necessity. What does that tell us about a person?
Could you bring back the essence of someone through one of their recipes? Ask yourself, what’s the story around this food?
Either find an old recipe of your mother’s or from your Uncle Bob, the chef. And read through it. Look at the handwriting. Was it shaky or smooth? Was the recipe written out for someone else to follow or was it just a quick note only the cook could understand? What does this suggest?
What if you don’t have a recipe from your favorite older person who loved to cook? Could you create one for them? If you had to recount how they made a certain dish, how would you do that? What steps would that person have taken?
Now take a look at other family members who don’t cook. How did your father handle directions? What steps would he have taken to change the oil in his car? How did he instruct you the first time you had to mow the lawn?
The way people follow or give directions can tell you a lot about their personalities. As you provide a framework for your story, you are setting up instructions for how the characters will act and how the rules will be followed.
Note: A memoir writer holds a unique perspective. They must be the writer, the narrator, and the main character. In fiction writing, all three of these could be different characters. How does this shape your writer’s voice?
Game #4: The Comment Card
As a kid, I loved to fill out comment cards at businesses. Had my parents clued in they’d have seen the makings of a writer. There was something really special about having the opportunity to share my experiences in my own voice.
Pick up some comment cards from a business or fill out one of those dang survey requests you get via email.
Picture yourself at various points along your storyline. How does each change the way you give your opinion? What must you convey? Think imperative information. What gets left out? Who are you writing to? Now’s your chance to say anything you like to the powers that be. State it clearly in writing.
Just don’t turn the card into the business. You may get some unusual responses.
Consider ways you can take ordinary experiences and use them to help shape your writer’s voice. What makes your voice unique?