Trusting Your Voice as an ESL Writer

By Gunnar De Winter

Much has been said and—obviously—written about the writer’s voice. But what if that voice speaks in a language that is not your native one? While a writer’s voice is, by definition, hard to define, it lives and thrives through idiosyncrasy. Your voice as a writer is the collection of verbal quirks, (subconscious) stylistic preferences, and choice of metaphors that shape your words and sentences, a fingerprint written in cursive, as unique as you are.

The voice of some writers is distinct and rings a bell. For others, it’s a more subtle touch that nevertheless worms its way into the readers’ brains.

My writing has been called voice-y, and that writer’s voice has helped me in realms beyond the virtual page. It has helped me find myself when I was lost. “Here I am,” it said. Still. Despite.

And yet.

And yet, it can be hard to lean into that voice. You see, I am an ESL (English as a second language) writer. I was raised speaking Flemish, the Belgian dialect of Dutch, depending on how linguistically granular you want to get. English came later. At this point, I have to provide a bit more background. By now, English is, for all intents and purposes, a crucial language in my daily life through a combination of education at UK institutions and work in fields where English is the lingua franca. I even dream in English. I have the certificates that tell me I’m at “native level.” I am not mentioning this to boast. Quite the opposite. I am mentioning it to let you know that, even though I rationally know my English is, at the very least, advanced, I still worry about having my writer’s voice misunderstood, because English is not officially my first language.

My voice-y writer’s voice includes a lot of wordplay, explorations of specific idioms, or verbal tics. By their very nature, those components of my voice can be unusual or unconventional. For example, Dutch does not use auxiliaries in questions. The question “what do you think?” would literally translate into “what think you?” in Dutch. So, will editors think I messed up my English if I purposefully put “what you think?” (let’s ignore word order here; that’s a whole other can of worms) in a story for a character with that idiom? I avoid those decisions because I worry that they will be seen not as parts of my (characters’) voice but as inadequacies in my English. That might sound strange; I have had short stories published in great places and have had the privilege of working with editors whose wonderful suggestions and incisive comments have, without exception, improved those stories. The SFF writing community is a marvelous, diverse, and supportive place. Being an ESL writer changes none of that.

To borrow from Taylor Swift, I’m the problem; it’s me.

While I can only speak from my own experience, being an ESL writer makes it uniquely challenging to trust your writing voice. After all, it’s not your native language. After all, there may be nuances you miss, and influences from your native tongue might find their way into your writing without you noticing.

Will readers and editors see my wordplay, my Easter eggs, and my characters’ quirky expressions as fundamental flaws in my English, or will they see them for what they are: my writer’s voice coming through? Rationally, I know (or hope?) that the answer is the latter. Emotionally, I fear the former.

I imagine this internal struggle can be even more challenging for ESL writers who, unlike me, have not been raised in a Western country (note: not a fan of that term) or writers who are part of a minority group that uses an idiom that departs from “standard” English. After all, context matters. How your culture handles pronouns, self-reference, interpersonal relational terms, or even names can affect your (English) writing voice. Will that voice be heard and be allowed to stand on its own in the evolving landscape between your native tongue (and culture) and the English you use to write your stories as truthful and authentic as they can be?

Once more, the welcoming writing community I have glimpsed makes me think the answer is a resounding yes. A community, I might add, that is also wonderful in its diversity. Even if you are oceans away, even if English is not your first language, you will not be alone. The act of writing is often seen as a solitary one, but forums, critique groups, and, yes, social media can connect you to people who are or have been where you are in your writing, who share your struggles but can also share their experience in dealing with them. And yet, I know that this does not always quell the inner doubt.

The only way through this doubt, I think, is trust. Trust that the right readers and editors will follow your words and hear your voice. Most of all, trust yourself and your voice. Trust that the best way for you to tell your stories is to be unapologetically you. Amidst the rejections all writers face, ESL or not, that trust in yourself does not come easy.

Trust me, I know.

The stories I am proudest of, the ones that have found great homes, tend to be those in which I allow my writer’s voice to shine through (within limits, of course—I can go overboard). Yet I have to fight my self-doubt every day to let that voice speak.

I have no reason to think that my specific voice or my English is a problem. I have no reason to think that either of those elements of my writing is what’s holding me back.

No reason at all. Except, sometimes, the voice (ha!) in my head.

Gunnar De Winter is a Belgian biologist turned science writer, but sometimes his imagination runs away with him. His stories have appeared in, among others, The Deadlands, Future SF Digest, and Daily Science Fiction. Say hi to him on X as @evolveon or on Bluesky as