Finding Your Writing Voice: How to Express Your Unique Self in Your Work | Jennifer Keishin Armstrong | Skillshare

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Finding Your Writing Voice: How to Express Your Unique Self in Your Work

teacher avatar Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, New York Times bestselling author

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Unit 1: Welcome to Class


    • 2.

      Unit 2 Pop Stars, Literary Lights, and You


    • 3.

      Unit 3: Project Demonstration


    • 4.

      Unit 4: Final Inspirations


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About This Class

Get in touch with the unique bits of your personality that will make your writing stand out. (Yeah, it’s a little shrink-y and Oprah-y, in the best possible way.) We’ll talk about voice from every angle: the lit-geeky (Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, The New Yorker) and the pop-star-ish (Beyoncé and Britney might come up). We’ll explore ways to get comfortable with being vulnerable and take chances with your writing. We’ll also talk about karaoke or opera, if the mood strikes.

Meet Your Teacher

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Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

New York Times bestselling author


A New York Times bestselling author, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of seven pop culture history books, including Seinfeldia; Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted; and Sex and the City and Us. Her forthcoming book When Women Invented Television will be published in March 2021. Her work appears in many publications, including BBC Culture, The New York Times Book Review, Vice, New York magazine, and Billboard.

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1. Unit 1: Welcome to Class: Hi. Welcome to finding your writing voice on skill share. This class will discuss how to express your unique self in your work. I am Jennifer Cation Armstrong. Now here's a little bit about me. I am the author of three books, all nonfiction, including My Most Recent, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, which is a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that was published by Simon and Schuster in 2013. I'm a journalist. I was on staff at Entertainment Weekly for about 10 years, and I know right for Fast Company, New York, The New York Times, Natural Health and many others. I'm also a writing teacher and a coach. You can visit me at Jennifer kay armstrong dot com. I also happen to be a total geek about voice in writing, and I'm very excited to be presenting an entire class just about voice for skill share. Here's a little bit of an overview of what we will be doing throughout this class. We will be talking about how pop stars help us understand voice writing. We will also get a little bit more serious and talk about how reading and imitating the grades of literature can help you find your own voice. We'll talk about how you can focus on your own unique personality and you're ready. We'll talk about why. The way write an email or a letter in the olden days to a friend is the key to your reading voice. And we'll talk about why writing about a life changing event helps you to get in touch with your voice. And we will be specifically doing those last two things for the final project in this class . So now a little bit of an overview about the importance of voice in writing. This happens to be a photo of me at about age four, with this kind of karaoke, a record player set up that I had loved. And I'm getting ready to sing to my poster of Donny Osmond, of course. So as you can see, I have been studying voice in one way or another for quite some time. But in all seriousness, the reason that voice is important in your writing is that what makes your work yours and no one else's. This is the one thing you can dio that no one else can dio you are a special snowflake and you must express every facet of that through your work. And it really is the key, especially in a crowded market. Please, like today with the Internet. This is how you stand out, as you and no one else will be talking about in this class. How to concentrate on specific aspects of your personality and convey them. And you're ready. So s for the class project. We will be working toward. What we're doing is really focusing on writing our peace as if we're reading a letter to a friend. You could even think of a specific friend. You want to write it, Teoh. It really helps to bring out the real you and your writing and helps you forget about what you think you should be doing as much as we want. Teoh make some sense to people convey real meanings. Seem a little organized. Seem like we know our basic grammar rolls. You also want to shake a little bit of that off. Loosen up when it comes. Teoh getting in touch with your voice. You want to be able to break those rules that make sense for you to break for good reason to express yourself the way you want Teoh. And if you think about running to a friend, this is where you're really going to start to sound like you. And as I think most of us find sounding exactly like you is harder than it seems like it should be. You know, the more we learn about writing and overthink it, the last natural, we often end up sounding. So this is to get us really back in touch with that natural voice that's inside us. So we'll be writing a first person account of a major life changing moment. This, too, is designed to just really bring out your personality. Bring out your passion and proposal your writing and give it a little bit of a narrative so you don't have to worry about this this way. We're just really focusing on, you know, telling a story that's super important to us, as if we're telling it to a person who is super important to us. And this is until he what already should be like it sound like, but the's parameters should help you to get a little bit more in touch with that. So with that we're going to move on to the next unit, which is going to be discussing some of the key concepts of writing voice in a little bit more details so that you're ready to tackle that project. 2. Unit 2 Pop Stars, Literary Lights, and You: Hello and welcome to part two of finding your writing twice on skill share in this unit will be going over all of the key concepts to finding your writing voice so that you will be ready to tackle your project. So our first lesson is about how pop stars can help our writing and the first thing we're gonna do in that is we're going Teoh watch. And more importantly, listen Teoh Britney Spears singing her huge first hit baby one more time. And then I promise you, when we come back to this screen, I will tell you how that actually relates to your ready. The baby way, - way , way, way, way have listened to that. We can talk a little bit about how that relates to already. The bottom line is many people hate her singing voice, and they would have good, solid technical arguments as to why they hate her singing voice. She's not one of our greatest singers, but she is one of the most successful pop artists of the last 15 years. Why is this and obviously more importantly, here, how can this help your writing? Britney Spears can in fact teach us quite a bit about writing, believe it or not, there are, of course, a 1,000,000,000 reasons why she is one of our most successful prosperous of the last couple decades. And many of them have nothing to do with her singing voice. And I'm happy to have a depth two specials about that in a different time in place. But here, the part that matters is the fact that her voice is unique. If you were saying just one or two notes, you know exactly what ISS This is the key when you're developing your any voice, when people turn on the radio and here just a couple nous, they know it's Britney Spears. They know whether they like it or not. If they like it, they know this is the new song, and they want to go get some and you're reading. You want people to know it's you the minute they start reading it. Another point is that people do love to hate Britney's voice. They also hate to hate bring his voice. All of these could be a good thing. Strong reactions can actually be a really good sign. When it comes to your ready voice, you have to risk some people disliking you if you're gonna be unique enough to be recognizable. Safest For a someone like Jonathan Safran Foer white rights with incredibly strong voice. Many people do not care for him, but few people can really make the argument that he's not a writer. It's just that they either like him or don't like him. But the people who do like him like him intensely and specifically because he is him and because he's writing the way he does. So that's the reaction you want to get you want to have. Those fans were really devoted. If you just stay middle of the road, you might. You might get by right some stuff on the Internet or whatever, but no one's gonna remember you. No one's gonna seek you out. So the more people feel connected to you in that strong and specific way, the better off you leave. So the next artist we're going to look at in the pop star world is Beyonce and what she can teach us about reading and voice. So the first thing we're gonna do here is go watch one more video and then when I bring it back here we will talk about what we've learned from the Beyonce video. You way, way. - Okay , now that we've watched that this one has a lot more to do with what she does on stage, then her actual singing there's not allowed to debate over whether Beyonce taken saying The way there is with Britney. The really big thing about Beyonce is the way she performs. She's always clearly expressing kind of, ah, heightened version of herself, and that's what you want to be doing in your writing. You want to think of your writing as a performance and preferably a Beyonce level. Performance doesn't have to be the same. It doesn't have to express the same things. But you want it to be all there in the performance that you're giving as a writer the way that Beyonce does this is she used to talk about having an alter ego named Sasha Fears, whom she channeled when she was performing. It wasn't someone totally different from herself, was just a concentrated version of herself that allowed her to let go for inhibitions, and I cannot think of a better way to define reading voice than that. It's a concentrated version of yourself that allows you to let go of your inefficient. It's so consider whether you kind of need your own version of Sasha fierce when writing this superhuman version of yourself that you channel when you sit down to write something. Beyonce's also always expressing specific parts of her personality on a consistent basis. When she's performing, her persona is sexy, confident and super humanly empowered. This comes through in certain gestures. She repeats over and over. She does those hair flips. That kind of stage owning stands at the beginning and end of songs where her feet are wide apart, makes your seem bigger and powerful. Not big person, but she can own a stadium that way. She has the hips, swivelling, choreography, even that constant wind machine that seems to follow her around. Everywhere is part of this expression. The bottom on on our Beyonce lesson is this. You want to figure out what parts of your personality to express in your writing in a concentrated way, the same way she doesn't hurt before me. Then you want to figure out how to do that. Through certain repeated gestures, she has her hair flips and her wind machine. We have words. So we're choice in general is big, you know? Do you use fancy words? The people you look up or do you use or casual words that are very accessible? Do you swear? Do you never swear? Uh, references you make. As you could tell. I like to make pop music references, for instance, that can, you know, tell us a lot about you and also the audience that you are envisioning for yourself. If you're making classic literature references a lot, if you're making philosopher references world history references, hip hop references, you know, birdwatching references, you know there's a There's a lot of things that you could kind of be building in and showing us parts of your personality and also how you see your audience. There's also the ways your great grammar rules you want to do this with some thought. You don't want to just seem like you don't know what you're doing. But maybe you like to use a sentence fragments because you like that choppy rhythm or because you like that simple, straightforward, direct kind of delivery. Maybe you like the longer than normal sentences. Now we will move on to the actual literary part of our writing lesson. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard from a teacher in college Waas to read and imitate. I know this concerned, like the exact opposite of what we're talking about here. We're trying to find your unique voices. Now I'm telling you to read great writers and just imitate them. Well, you don't want to imitate them so precisely that it's just a parody. But if you kind of, you know, incorporate some of the things you like about the ways that they right into your own work with your own spin in your own personality, this can start to get you closer to finding your own voice, especially if you choose to imitate writers who resonated with your feeling and style. So let's look at a few first. This first example is from Jack Kerouac and on the road. The only people for me are the bad ones, the ones who are mad to live mad, to talk, mad, to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. And in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes, Uh, so you can see I even kind of have to put on a little bit of a Kerouac persona to read that out loud. That is a good sign. That's a strong voice. The second example is much different. This is from Dorothy Parker reading in The New Yorker when she was reviewing, It plays for them. This is her assessment of one of them. The house Beautiful is for me the play lousy again. You can hear that I actually have to get a little Dorothy Parker on before I read that out loud. Even that short little sentence has so much Dorothy Parker in it. She is more about the quick sentence, the quick wit, a little bit of wordplay that sort of they so very different examples, but both very voici as we can set. Here's some things to think about when you are reading and imitating. You want to choose writers, as I said, whose voices kind of resonate with you. It's not just that you like them, but you think they write can similarly to the way you want, right? If you're poetic, for instance, you might choose Kerouac. If you're a terse and witty, you might shoes Parker. I love both of them, but for me, you know I'm never gonna write like Kerouac. It's just not the way I think so. I might be closer to somebody like Parker. There's a 1,000,000 other choices in between and everywhere else, so these are just two of many. When you choose your writer runners, you want to immerse yourself in these people's writing and then imitated a bit in your own work. And hopefully your rendition will be different enough that you may find aspects of your voices in there and work to kind of cultivate those those parts and this sort of superhero version of you plus Jack Kerouac or what? Whoever else. This is your socks affairs. Before we move on, I would like you to take a few moments to think about how you want to describe yourself specifically those aspects of yourself that you want Teoh express through your right. So we want to come up with a list of maybe three or four adjectives, you know, you can't have too many because that's gonna get complicated. You want this to be a concentrated version of yourself. So think of the 3 to 4 parts of yourself that you want to bring out your ready. I have many examples listed here on screen. You can choose anything else as well. Of course, these air just to kind of get you thinking and started. But some examples include body witty, erudite, funny, serious, well traveled, well read, pop, culture obsessed, highly cultured, Chaddy. Poetic, accessible, spiritually passionate, snarky, smart, journalistic, confessional, dramatic, principled, terse, simple European, Midwestern. And of course, any number of those regional identifications specifically can come through in language. So that's something to definitely think about as part of your percent of. So after you do that, please join me for the next unit in which will be going over the project in detail, and I will be demonstrating some of the concepts behind 3. Unit 3: Project Demonstration: Welcome to Part Three of finding your writing voice for skill share in this unit. I will be demonstrating some of the major points that you want to focus on when you are doing your project for this class. So your assignment is to write about a major turning point in your life. The reason for this is that writing in the first person is the easiest way to get in touch with your own voice, since its Utah game just makes sense. And running about a major turning point in your life brings out your passion and drama as well as your own personality. What you did in this situation is obviously a reflection of your essence, so it just helps to bring that out even more. For instance, I will choose for the purposes of this demonstration the time that I canceled my wedding to the man I've been with for 10 years since college. You'll also be writing as if you're writing a letter to a friend says more of a mental thing. He didn't have to put a dear so and so on the top. But if you write with a specific audience in mind, particularly one specific ideal reader. You had to sound more like you. Voice is all about sounding like one specific, real human. Telling a story to another specific, real human should be simple, but it often isn't. And who is a more ideal reader than a friend? For this exercise, you might want to think of this person as you know, an old friend you've reconnected with on Facebook or something like that. You're catching this person up on the major event of your life since you lost touch, for instance, I'd read something like this. I almost got married once. I have the dress in the cake in the menu, in the place, and everything is going to be a perfect wedding, really. Then I realized the one thing it was missing, a groom I loved, who loved me back. Sure, we'd fallen in love in college, and I think it was for real for a while. But because we were both perfectionists in our own ways, we ignored every problem we had so we could look like we had everything handled. He wanted to catch up with his siblings, who were ahead of him on the spouse and kids track. I wanted to prove that someone wanted to marry me, to check that box off and move on. Two things that interested to me. More like my career. I was far more interested in spending my days writing magazine stories about the O. C. And my nights. Going to book party is for Rick Moody. Then I wasn't planning a wedding. But if choosing between fondant and buttercream till and satin would help me get there, I do it and being me and study it until I could do it better than anyone else. So, to recap, he wanted to marry me so I could birth Children. I wanted to get this wedding thing done so I could go back to focusing on my work. Brilliant. What could possibly go wrong? So now that I've gotten us into this mess, I'm afraid we're gonna have chucked it me for a couple more minutes just to show you some of the concepts we've been talking about that are demonstrated in this little piece that I just wrote for this. You may be able to tell I am not Kerouac. I have not Dorothy Parker. I am closer to Dorothy than I am to Jack, I think. But I love them both. You can see one suits my writing a little bit more than the other, even though I don't consider either of, um, my primary voice muses, which will talk more about a minute. Some things about me that do come through in this writing. Besides what I'm actually telling you about myself in the passage and casual and conversational, my style is accessible. It's easily understood. I emphasized this with some chatty extras like saying and everything. And really, those aren't necessary words, but they convey a certain mood and a certain voice. I often start sentences with conjunctions, conjunctions like, but because I like the writing to kind of just flow naturally, like a conversation. I have reference points from teen TV shows like the OSI to literary novelists like Rick Moody. So it indicates a certain, probably middle class, professional type of audience who is pop culture savvy and, um, a little bit literary. But you know, it's not too highfalutin. I like an occasional one word sentence for emphasis. Like when I said brilliant, I favor kind of soft humor in a bit of sarcasm, like when I said What could possibly go wrong? It's nothing mind blowing, but my friends would recognize all of this is very me. I would list my adjectives, by the way, as casual, high and low, cultured and funny. Or at least let's go with mildly humorous shall way. I wanted to talk a little bit about my actual voice, muses the people that I see as my models for my writing. Because, you know, I think this comes through in that passage that I just read to you, and you can see how this really does work and doesn't make me, you know, an exact copy of these people. So I certainly wish eso my 1st 1 is Nick Hornby, who wrote about a boy High Fidelity bunch of those wonderful, wonderful books that are very easy to read. And this is a little passage from high Fidelity. Unfortunately, I do not do accents, so this won't be as British as it should be, But other than that, I'll do my best. We were 12 or 13 and had recently discovered irony, or at least what I later understood to be iron name. We only allowed ourselves play on the swings and the roundabout and the other kids stuff resting away. And there if we could do it with a sort of self conscious, ironic detachment. This involved either an imitation of absent mindedness, whistling or chatting or fiddling with a cigarette stub or a box of matches usually did the trick or a flirtation with danger. So we jumped off the swings when they could go no higher. Jumped onto the roundabout when it could go no faster, hung on to the end of the swing vote until it reached an almost vertical position. If you could somehow prove that these childish entertainments had the potential to dash your brains out than playing on them became OK somehow. So here's another of my voice muses. This is from the wonderful Susan Orlean, who has a great skill share class, by the way and also writes for The New Yorker has written many wonderful nonfiction books, so this is from a peace not too long ago that she wrote a bit a Twitter account called Horse E Books. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and I came across Force E Books by chance in 2012 I started following the account and retreated it frequently. I wasn't as passionate as those followers who tweeted I love you to the account nearly every day, but it was one of my favorite things on Twitter. I wasn't sure what sort of sensibility was behind statements like Who else wants to become a golf ball? But I assumed that it was machine made, since it sounded both brash in a logical like a self help book that had been run through a shredder. So now it's your turn for your project. I would like you to write a 500 word passage that conveys your very essence. I know it's challenge. I want you to channel three or four adjectives that you chose to describe yourself. Pretend you're writing to a friend right about a major turning point. Your life. Once you're done, share your project in the gallery for feedback from your classmates and make sure to join me for the final unit here. Just a few final thoughts before you head off on your voice writing adventures 4. Unit 4: Final Inspirations: so welcome to the final portion of finding your writing voice on skill share. I am a big fan of karaoke, and I'm a big fan of writing. You may have been able to guess a lot of that already. Here are some other ways for you to have fun and think about your writing voice going into the future. You can listen to some music, any kind of vocal music really well, dio anything you like and notice the ways that different singers expressed their personalities using their voice stuff like those sexy growls or the whiskey Stokes scratchy nous that some singers have our beautiful heavenly trills like Arianna Grande A or Mariah Carey. These are all deliberate choices that express the singer's intentions. They don't have to sound like that. They don't just come out that way. They're trying to show you something specific about who they are, and you can really do the same in your writing. And if you're so inclined, I highly recommend you go out for a night of Correo G. When I first started doing karaoke, it really got me interested in singing voice and thinking about it instead of just assuming it comes out, however, comes out and seeing those connections between singing voice and writing for voice. It's also really fun gets you loosened up and you know you can see it as a writing learning experience. In addition to just a fund, I have a few parting examples for you of great Voici writing. This is from Jon Krakauer. The night had a cold fantasma beauty that intensified as we ascended more stars than I had ever seen. Smeared the frozen sky. Beautiful lyrical sentences with very fancy words on them. So clearly. Jon Krakauer and only Jon Krakauer. And this one is from a Gay Talese profile of Frank Sinatra, obviously from some time ago. Sinatra with the cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel, only worse for the common cold. Rob Sinatra of that uninsurable Jewell, his voice cutting into the core of his confidence. And it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause the kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him. Drink for him, love him, depend on him for them, their welfare and stability. I love that one because the long second sentence after a short, easy first sentence. Everything kind of sounds like a song that Sinatra might saying. The Picasso without paint Ferrari without fuel and that worked for him. Drink for him, love him. But, um, really wonderful stuff going on here that just makes the writing go down so easily. So with that, I say to you, happy voicing. Remember Tad your project to the gallery for feedback from your fellow students. A few advertisements here is well, I have some other classes on skill share that you can visit right this second, how to write smart about pop culture. And I have another one about writing a non fiction book proposal of It sells. You can also visit me online at Jennifer kay armstrong dot com, or follow me on Twitter at J. M. Kay Armstrong. Thank you so much for joining me. I love talking about this stuff, and I'm so glad to be able Teoh share it with others. Thanks