What is a writer’s “voice”?
This is one of those phrases that people think they understand. But let’s take it apart a little… Is your writer’s voice the same thing as your own voice? What makes it different? How do you know when you’ve found it? Where do you get one? How much does it cost? Voice is one of the few writing intangibles that cannot be taught, though oddly enough, it can be uncovered, discovered, and developed.
So how do you discover and adapt your own writer’s voice?
Voice is equally applicable to fiction and nonfiction. It’s the way a writer uses language, the “feel” of the words. I think it’s inherent in each person’s writing and automatically matures over time if one writes enough, and I also think some people have very distinctive voices even when they’re still struggling with the mechanics of writing. I remember a woman I worked with years ago; she had the most exquisite lyrical voice to her language even though she had a lot of trouble with sentence structure and grammar. She had it easy: the grammar can be taught and learned. The voice? Not so much.
I believe the voice of a writer is inherent, not something that can be learned or taught: it’s discovered and developed.
What is it?
There’s a cadence, a rhythm, a selection of words and phrases that make some writers’ voice as distinctive as fingerprints. Ironically, perhaps, the authors with the most distinctive voices are the easiest to mimic and lampoon.
So here are the questions we need to be asking. How does a writer decide how their story is told? What role do gender, culture, and experience play in the decisions surrounding voice and narrative?
Here’s an analogy that might be helpful: think of very successful musical groups. Hear a few bars from any of your favorites (or even those you dislike) and you’ll immediately recognize that their “sound” is unique to them. Likewise, an author’s “voice” is unique in how it sounds, how it feels. It may include style, syntax, vocabulary, tone and much more… all of it in combination, working together.
Voice & style
When most people start talking about voice, what they’re really talking abut is a style. Phrasing is about style. Rhythm is about style. Word choice is about style. And when we talk about writing for a specific audience, we’re also talking about style.
Where does voice come into it? When people talk about the writer’s voice, they tend to talk in terms of lists. Depending on one’s perspective, voice comprises style, punctuation, syntax, tone, rhythm, speech patterns, context, background, and more… It’s a series of choices, some of which are made unconsciously, others of which are made deliberately.
The unconscious part is tricky. Let’s start with what’s deliberate.
If your parents died at your birth and you were raised by apes — or some other accommodating species that doesn’t use writing as a communication tool — then, when you did begin to write, your voice would probably be as close to unique as any of us can ever aspire to. But the reality is that unless that’s what happened to you, your voice isn’t really uniquely yours. It’s an amalgamation of influences, of things you’ve read and things you’ve heard, of who you are and who you want to be.
And it’s also, truth be told, what you choose it to be.
Your style changes the more you write…
Your style changes — thank goodness! — the more you write. The tragedy of being published is that your old self is forever in print, while your new self moves on to better ideas and better ways of expressing them. You’re not the same person you were ten or even five years ago, and your style knows it.
I can’t tell you how much I cringe at my earlier published writing, and that goes for things I wrote just a few years ago as much as it goes for the self-absorbed, self-conscious stuff I first got published in magazines in my late teens. My style has changed and is in fact constantly changing. But my voice? That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?
…or with a different audience
Your style will also vary depending on the audience for which you write. We talked about this when we were looking at characterizations in fiction and the audience for which you write. Your voice will always be affected by your style, and your style is constantly changing. If you write for a living, then your style will vary depending on the publication (the Cape Cod Times sounds quite different from the Wall Street Journal, for example). If you want to write for literary magazines (which are, as far as I can tell, writers who want to get published writing for other writers who want to get published), you’ll adapt a style more reminiscent of Diane Williams than of Christopher Moore. If you want to write for your local town’s newspaper, you’ll need to practice a no-nonsense style that delivers the goods quickly and in the simplest possible terms. I could go on, but you get the drift.
…or with different life experiences
And of course every event we experience, especially crisis events, changes us. And that affects how we express ourselves.
So is voice style?
So how does your voice develop out of a style that isn’t static?
I’d like to suggest that this is where the magic comes in. If you’ve been writing for any significant length of time, you know what I’m talking about. At some point in all the tedium and struggle and lack of inspiration you may experience, there is a moment (or more than one, if you’re blessed) when something happens that surprises you. When the words flow as though of their own volition.
When the magic happens.
As your writing skills develop, as your style evolves, as you gain more experience — both on and off the page — you’ll find that your voice will be there, too.
Finding a voice
Frank Sinatra used to say that he found his voice the day he stopped trying to sound like Bing Crosby. Many many many beginning writers try to sound like other writers. They like a certain author’s style, and they adapt it — either consciously or unconsciously.
I was working on a book and my editor kept sending it back and I couldn’t figure out why, until one night I was reading a book by Phil Rickman, one of my favorite authors, and I saw suddenly that the problems with my current novel were the places where I was writing what he might have written if he had been telling the story I was telling. It wasn’t on purpose, but it was there. I took a fresh look at the manuscript and it started working when I turned it from a third-rate Phil Rickman into a first-rate Jeannette de Beauvoir.
We learn from other writers; I’m with Stephen King who says that people who don’t read have no business writing. Read everything; read all the time; have favorite authors. But make sure that you’re learning from them, not imitating them; make sure when you’re writing that you’re not becoming a pale reflection of somebody else.
Voice and personality
When most people talk about voice, the word “personality” invariably enters into the conversation; it’s often acknowledged that the writer’s true personality shows through their writing. And personality is definitely a part of voice, because voice is made up of dozens of little technical things that we’ve been talking about, things like word choice and rhythm, but it’s also made up of the themes that shine through the author’s body of work. So voice can really be felt when you’re not just considering one or two books, but a whole repertoire.
For instance, Wendell Berry’s voice is reflective of the rural Kentucky community that shaped him. It also practically glistens with the rich Kentucky soil he farms, permeated with his love of the land and nature. His themes are all about the roots and anchors that keep you firmly planted while allowing you to grow far past your origins — or the others, the anchors that keep you in one place, trapping you while also nourishing you. I can hear the rhythms of Kentucky in his word choice and sentence structure, both in dialogue and in narrative, and it makes me long for those roots… which has, by the way, nothing to do with my own background, personality, preferences, or voice.
It’s something too indefinable and delicate to create artificially: it comes out of years of work and refinement and self-trust.
Distinction in voice
Another example — again, a Southern writer — is Shelby Foote. He wrote long, rambling sentences, filled with parenthetical expressions. I took it as just something he did and didn’t give it much thought until I saw him interviewed in Ken Burns’ program The Civil War. He spoke the way he wrote. Or, rather, he wrote the way he spoke. He took the leisurely path to a subject. His voice was a gentle, southern drawl and I never minded him stopping to explore every nook and cranny on his way to his point. After that interview, I could almost hear each of his sentences that I read. Always, in his voice.
A word I distrust because of its over-use is authenticity, but it’s relevant: part of finding a writing voice has to do with being authentic: not trying to sound like anyone else. Someone tried writing Return to Wuthering Heights, and it was certainly not a good idea. That authenticity doesn’t limit your ability to set your story in locales you’ve never visited (how else would science fiction writers function?) or create characters who exist in foreign, exotic lands: voice and dialogue are separate entities. Your voice is separate from the voices of your characters. But you must keep to a story that belongs to a certain voice.
Writing a story that excites you is the best way to find your voice, regardless of genre. How authors approach their topics will differ, pace and suspense will vary as will the beginning, middle, and end of the novel. But once a story is told through an author’s natural style of writing, any genre is within grasp. I write in more than one genre, yet I think anyone could distinguish my voice in all of them.
Discovering your voice
So to think about voice is inevitably to think about yourself, because everything that you are and that you’ve done and that you believe will flow into your voice.
What you believe is important
Let’s start with aneasy question. What is your philosophy?
Uh-huh. You probably can’t remember the last time someone asked you about your philosophical leanings. But what you believe about people and the world will influence your writer’s voice. So what will it be? Are you an existentialist? A rationalist? A Taoist? What are your basic beliefs about the nature of humanity, about good and evil? Take time to work through this. Think about what you believe about humanity and about the world. If you think you’re a cynic, explore what that means, how you arrived at that conclusion, what other parts of your life it affects.
Then do this exercise: Write a brief sketch of a character who shares your philosophical leanings. Believe me when I tell you that it is time very well spent.
Because, first of all, you have to know what’s important to you.
What you write is important
You probably already know the genre that’s most comfortable for you. You write creative nonfiction, or historical fiction, or poetry. That’s all well and good; but it can also be confining. In my workshops, I often challenge writers to write a story in a genre that’s uncomfortable for them. For me, for example, that would be science fiction. But if you do that, and you compare it to a story written in a more natural and comfortable genre, a sense of the storyteller herself or himself will emerge. And at the end of the day, that’s what writing is all about: embodying and enabling the storyteller.
Uncovering your voice
As I said, I think a style can be developed, but voice has to be uncovered. It’s a mix of style and personality and whatever inner thing is pushing you to write.
How do you start to uncover a voice?
Make lists. I’m a great believer in lists. One of the things I tell beginning writers is to keep an index card for each of their characters. Record everything there: how much they weigh, their favorite color, whether they have a tic, what their voice sounds like, their most passionate belief… the more you can write about your characters, the more you’ll get to know them as distinct people. The index cards are, to me, the Holy Grail of character development. But they’re not always practical to-do sorts of things.
Start with things about yourself, because a great deal of voice is about really understanding yourself. What do you read? Make a list. Who are your favorite authors? Make another list. Now look at these lists and try and pinpoint what they have in common.
Try making a list of memories. What do you remember about your childhood? Where did you live? Can you see what you were wearing? Was there a special day or days that stand out? If so, can you describe them? What about your friends? Your activities?
I’ll give an example: I remember there being a bee’s nest in one of the corners of my house. I don’t know how old I was, but some friends and I thought it would be a great idea to run back and forth in front of the nest. The obvious happened and I got quite a few bee-stings. In a short story I wrote a few years ago, I used this memory when writing about a mother’s exasperation at the random stupidity of her daughter, just as my own mother probably felt about mine. So list your memories, your anecdotes, and have them in a file that you can draw from when you’re writing.
Do the same thing with anecdotes. I was in London last year and was walking along the pavement under an umbrella when I looked into one of the myriad small public gardens in Bloomsbury and saw a young woman twirling about in the rain, her arms out, her skirt swirling, her face to the sky. The image stayed with me and I wrote it down in an ideas file I keep on my computer’s desktop. I’ll use it someday.
Memories, dreams, magic, gifts, foods, goals, etc. Write about them all. Remember that nothing you write is ever wasted.
Read, and write, and read again
Once you have this done — and we’re talking about a process that could easily take you months — then take a look at what you wrote when you began thinking about having a writer’s voice, and compare it to what you’re writing at the end of this exercise, and I’m willing to bet that you’re going to see some shifts. Subtle, dramatic, it doesn’t matter: it’s you discovering your writer’s voice.
And, finally, TAKE RISKS. Risky writing is writing at the very edge of your soul, and that’s where your true voice lies.
Jeannette de Beauvoir helps writers discover their writer’s voice via workshops, coaching, and developmental editing. More at her website.