Wednesday, August 28

A Writer's Voice: What It Is And How To Develop Yours

A Writer's Voice: What It Is And How To Develop Yours

A few days ago Elizabeth Craig--a writer I admire not only for her prose but also for her writing on writing--posted an article, Telling a Story in Our Own Voice, about how to develop your voice. That's what I'd like to talk about today.

First of all, what the heck is a writer's voice? What do we mean when we use that term?

What is a writer's voice?

One of the best, and most profane, discussions of a writer's voice comes from Chuck Wendig's blog, Terribleminds (adult language -->): 25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice. Interestingly, Chuck Wendig's writing is a wonderful demonstration of voice in action.

No one writes like Chuck Wendig.

Why? He has a unique voice. I know that "unique" doesn't admit of qualification--something is unique or it isn't--but I really want to say that Chuck is amazingly, extravagantly, unique. And that's part of his voice, part of his (if I may put it like this) identity as a writer.

Once someone tried to fake a blurb from Chuck Wendig. It didn't go over. Anyone who read Chuck Wendig could tell he hadn't written it. Why? It didn't have his voice. Similarly, that's how Stephen King was identified with Richard Bachman. They had the same voice and a writer's voice is unique.

This is how Chuck Wendig puts it in his blog post 25 Things:
"A writer’s voice is an incomprehensible and largely indefinable combo-pack of — well, of just about anything. Style, dialogue, tropes, themes, genres, sub-genres, ideas, characters, stereotypes, archetypes, word choice, grammatical violations, and so forth. Anybody who tells you that David Foster Wallace’s voice does not include his obsession with footnotes should be shoved into a cannon and fired into the mouth of a great white shark. Voice is not one thing. It is, in fact, the summation of a writer."

How Does A Writer Find Her Voice?

I know I've been talking a lot about Chuck Wendig, but I want to share one last thing from him since he gives one of the best pieces of advice on how to find one's voice I've read:
“Every author decides to go on a grand adventure one day, and that grand adventure is to find her voice. She leaves the comfort of her own wordsmithy and she traipses through many fictional worlds written by many writers and along the way she pokes through their writings to see if her voice is in there somewhere. She takes what she reads and she mimics their voices, taking little pieces of other authors with her in her mind and on the page.

Is her voice cynical? Optimistic? Short and curt, or long and breezy? She doesn’t know and so she reads and she writes and she lives life in an effort to find out.

This adventure takes as long as it takes, but one day the author tires of it and she comes home, empty-handed, still uncertain what her voice looks like or sounds like.

And there, at home, she discovers her voice is waiting. In fact, it’s been there all along.

Your voice is how you write when you’re not trying to find your voice. Your voice is the way you write, the way you talk. Your voice is who you are, what you believe, what themes you knowingly and unknowingly embrace.

Your voice is you. Search for it and you won’t find it. Stop looking and it’ll find you.”
That's from The Grand Adventure To Find Your Voice.

I think, though, that there are some things you can do, writing exercises, that can help one find their voice and that's what I'd like to talk about in this section.

Here are a few things you can do to help develop your voice:

1. Write

Yes, I know, that one is obvious.

Or is it?

Sometimes I think we feel there's no point in writing until we've found our voice; what would be the point? But writing, in the end, and writing a lot, is the only way to find the bloody thing.

I know, it can seem like a catch 22 but it's really not. There are many ways to practice writing, many ways to fill up your one million words.

- Blog
- Write short stories (I love short stories because they give you the thrill, the feel, the high, of finishing a story, of holding it in your sweaty sleep-deprived hands and knowing you did that.)
- Blog
- Write reviews
- Write letters to the editor
- Blog
- Write a book or a novella
- Write guest blogs

You get the idea.

2. Mimic other writers

Sounds crazy, I know. How could mimicking the voice of other writers help you find your own?

But one thing musicians do, when they're learning, is play the songs of other musicians over and over until they get a feel for the song. Or so I'm told.

Here's an exercise:

Day One

a. Pick a book. It should be written by someone whose writing you admire, and it should be one you've already read.

b. From the book you've chosen, select a scene. It should be a scene you thought was especially well written, a scene that made your heart twinge and you to think: I want to write like that. If it's a long scene, just select two or three pages from it.

c. Write out those two or three pages. If you normally write your first draft longhand, then write this out longhand, if you normally type your first draft, then type the pages.

Note: This is only for your edification so don't worry about copying out the pages. You can cross them out or delete them when you're finished. The important thing is the act of writing them out. As I wrote in another article (3 Steps To Better Prose), copying out the words gives you a feel for the writer's timing, their rhythm.

d. Write a few paragraphs that mimic the style of the writing you've just copied. For example, if the scene you wrote out was a love scene then write a love scene. If the scene took place on a boat crossing the Atlantic Ocean then yours should too. The idea is to write the scene again, mimicking the authors style.

Day Two

e. The next day, select another scene from the book you chose and repeat steps (b), (c) and (d), above.

Day Three

f. The next day, select another scene from the book you chose and repeat steps (b), (c) and (d), above. (No, this isn't a stutter.)

Day Four

g. Pick a new book and repeat the process from (a), above.

Repeat the above for about three months and you will have not only gone a step further in finding your own voice but you will have improved your prose in the process!

3. Use an exemplar

Elizabeth Spann Craig writes:
"One tip that I found:  once you’ve written a passage of your book in the voice you’re shooting for, print that portion out and keep it near you.  When you feel you’re sounding stilted again, reread the passage that you wrote. It can help to reorient you. (Telling a Story in Our Own Voice)"

4. Study your past work

In her article, Telling a Story in Our Own Voice, Elizabeth Craig gave links to other (truly wonderful) articles on finding your voice, one of which is Janice Hardy's post Can You Hear Me Now? Developing Your Voice.

Janice Hardy writes:
"If you're uncertain about your own voice, try studying your work, past and present. Look for common elements, pieces that feel like you, things you like about how you put together words. Study your word choice, how you arrange paragraphs, how you control pacing and flow. Find the parts that are you, and then develop those aspects."
By the way, both Janice Hardy (@janice_hardy) and Elizabeth Craig (@elizabethscraig) have wonderful twitter feeds. They regularly tweet links to helpful writing resources.

I'd like to leave you with two pieces of advice from Janice Hardy (this is still from her article, Can You Hear Me Now?):
Don't edit your voice out
We do terrible things to sentences to make them "correct." Writing isn't about grammatically correct sentences or having every period in exactly the same place. Sentence fragments, not using whom vs who properly, bad grammar -- all of these things bring our work to life. While you can't ignore the rules all the time, breaking them to achieve an effect is acceptable.

Don't edit out the terms you naturally use
Regions have a voice all their own. If I say someone has a Southern accent, you know what I mean. They're from New Jersey? You hear it. If you have ways of saying things and those ways fit with your characters, use them.  
That's all for now, good writing!

Photo credit: "..." by seyed mostafa zamani under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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