Hearing voices? You’re not alone: The tricky, but unavoidable job of choosing the right online voice


Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we'll be looking at voice and how to apply it to your web projects.

Online voices are tricky

Do you hear voices? I hear voices all the time. In my sleep. When I’m working. At the dinner table. In the car. Sometimes the voices are so weird I don’t share them with anyone. Sometimes they keep me up at night.

I’m not on any medication. I’m a writer and voices bombard me. I’ve written seventeen-year-old magic marker huffers, widows whose husbands have all been mysteriously decapitated by malfunctioning tape decks, dead academics getting the last word in from the grave, boomerang salesmen, amateur astronomy fanatics, disgraced German ambassadors, down-on-their-luck performance artists and midget pornographers. They all have their own ways of speaking and listening, moving and resting, laughing and crying. They have problems like you and I. Most of them are just trying to get through the day.

I think giving free reign to those quirky voices that pop into our heads works for stories, and I think the same amount of detail, originality and proximity you have to your voices in fiction carries over well into content writing. Idiosyncrasies of phrasing are what make content stand out, after all. The question is, if you’re not used to channeling voices for short stories, how do you find them and make them work for websites and blogs? And, more importantly, how do you know when you’ve hit on the right voice?

Online voices are tricky, and here’s why. When you write stories, you’re inventing worlds for audiences to step into. You define the rules and your only sine qua non is relatability. Readers have to be able to identify with your characters in order to invest the time it takes to read your stories. Otherwise, the door is open to pretty much everyone.

When you write websites or blogs, on the other hand, you’re writing for specific audiences or personas, which means you’re creating worlds based on the expectations of those audiences. In other words, your voice can’t get by on its general relatability alone. It has to speak directly to a certain kind of visitor.

The incredible tone analyzer

At Contently, where they think about these things all the time, they’ve come up with a unique way of approaching the problem of voice: a tone analyzer. While the analyzer was developed to help media companies find writers with compatible writing styles, the qualities the analyzer measures may help you when thinking about your own writing voice.

The tone analyzer scrapes large chunks of content from websites and analyzes it according to five voice factors adapted from a pioneering 1961 psychological study: expressiveness, emotion, formality, empathy and sociability. Where your online voice falls on these scales, they claim, will determine what kind of readers are drawn to your writing.

Holy creepy behavioral science, Batman! That’s scary. Does it work?

Apparently, yes, and Contently can prove it. Here’s a tone analysis of Vice. Sound about right?

Vice scores low on emotion, empathy and sociability (i.e. they don’t care what you think about them), low in formality (i.e. they want you to know this isn’t the New York Times) and high in expressiveness, which means they aim to provoke.

But you’re not Vice. You’re a writer pitching a voice for your client’s new website, and you haven’t hit on the right tone yet. What can you do? First, you should have Contently’s five content factors—expressiveness, emotion, formality, empathy and sociability—in the back of your head, because those are the factors that impact readers’ perceptions of your writing the most. If you’re still drawing a blank, there are other ways to explore voice. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s called the Dinner Guest Test.

The Dinner Guest Test

Let’s say you’ve got a website to write and you’ve already done your creative brief, meaning you’ve already got some general, and hopefully more specific, guidelines about your client’s needs. You know, for example, if your website is more like a gentle breeze or a gust of tornado-fueled wind. With the Dinner Guest Test you simply imagine that website is an actual guest at a dinner party. What is it wearing? How does it move? What does it sound like? Does it bring wine or a tart or a bag of organic grapes? Is it sitting in the corner of the living room by itself nursing a mojito or standing in the kitchen flirting with the host’s wife? Does it get drunk and tell funny jokes or does it get drunk and start weeping? Is your website the kind of guest that gets invited back?

When I close my eyes and see Vice at my dinner table, I see a slightly buzzed or coked up 30-something writer whose jaded but witty rants piss off almost everyone at the party. They’re the kind of screeds that leave you in permanent doubt as to Vice's integrity. Does Vice actually mean what he’s saying or is it all just a show? If he ends up hooking up with someone, it will be a one-night stand with an impressionable younger reader who will wake up the next morning in bed alone. But something about Vice—his no-bullshit attitude maybe or his glibness—gets him invited back to parties again and again.

Summing up

Whatever kind of writing you’re doing, voice is incredibly important, so you should devote some solid time to thinking about it before you lay down a single word, especially if you’re writing web content. Because once you settle into your online voice, it’s pretty hard to reestablish yourself as something else. Just like at parties, thinking about what others think of you is the hallmark of a conscientious guest. It gets you invited back for the right reasons.

That said, hitting the sweet spot where you can express yourself honestly and comfortably—and draw readers to your writing—is no small thing. Style tweaks are doable and inevitable. No one starts out sounding exactly like they want to sound.

Voice is a project.

If you do start hearing voices, don’t get freaked out. Listen to them. Watch them. Study them. The closer you can get to your voices, the more easily you can put yourself into the shoes of your audiences. The more empathetic you are towards your audiences, the more relatable your content will be.

Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: max@storylinecreatives.com.

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