How to Develop Your Writer’s Voice
How would you go about developing your distinct voice? And what is voice, exactly? Obviously the way Stephen King tells a story, his use of language, is different from the way, say, Isaac Asimov told a story. And both of these are different from the way Margaret Atwood writes. For example:
“On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.” (Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake)
“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.
“The house - mansion, actually - was cold and quiet. The only sounds were the low snap of the fire on the big stone hearth and the low whine of the November wind outside.” (Stephen King, The Cat from Hell)
“He [Gaal] had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.” (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)
I wanted to also give you a sample of Neil Gaiman’s work -- the first section of Neverwhere -- but that would have made this post too long! But, hopefully, from these three samples you can extrapolate what I mean by a writer’s voice.
Developing Your Writer's Voice
Of course I’m just gesturing toward the idea of a writer’s voice. You need to read many stories by the same author to be able to hear that author’s voice. Similarly, to understand what different SORTS of voices are possible it helps to read dozens, hundreds, thousands of books by various authors. And it helps enormously if your reading is eclectic, don’t just draw from one genre and don’t just read fiction.
For example, in the excerpt I gave from Stephen King’s short, The Cat from Hell (one of my favorites), he has a particular voice and he’s (of course) speaking through a specific narrator. King’s voice will change slightly from story to story in part because each will likely have a different narrator. That said, after you’ve read a few of Stephen King’s stories you get a sense of what-stays-the-same even across books.
Okay, so that’s what I have to say about a writer’s voice. Now I want to get to the real meat of this article: how to bring out the best in YOUR writer’s voice.
Let’s face it, some writer’s voices are more interesting, exciting, irreverent, funny, and so on, than others. Sometimes I would like to try and make MY writer’s voice more exciting. So … what could I do to kick things up a notch?
Chuck Wendig’s Voice
I’m writing this post because of Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terribleminds. I love this blog! CW has good advice for writers (except the part about eating bees) and I enjoy his strong writing style.
(BTW, Chuck Wendig’s blog, every inch of it, is NSFW because of adult language. You’ve been warned! Here’s the link: Terribleminds)
10 ways to a bolder voice
Our keyboards have a delete button for a reason.
If you attempt to make a sentence better by trying out one of the techniques, below, and the sentence is so hideous it hurts your eyes, just delete it!
But, who knows? You might create something playfully creative, something that will make your readers laugh, something you wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. I think it’s valuable to try something new-ish or slightly uncomfortable (and, yes, I’m talking to myself right now!).
What I’m going to do is look at a few excerpts from Chuck Wendig’s work and then I’ll attempt to puzzle out what Chuck Wendig did to make me really like that bit of writing. (By the way, I’ve left links at the end of this article to every single article I quote from.)
“Oh, and I still get bad reviews. I still get rejected. Writing is hard. Easier for me than many. But still hard. And publishing is harder. Publishing can be 'passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra' hard. It can be 'pushing a rock up a hill until the rock rolls back down onto you and then vultures eat your fingermeats but now it’s time to push the rock again, dummy' hard.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)
Okay, so, here are a few things I noticed in this passage:
1. Take it over the top.
Take something innocuous, a nothingburger of a sentence or idea, and double-down on it. Then triple down. (“pushing a rock up a hill …”)
2. Be bold. Be honest.
To say that I’m shy would be like saying statues don’t move a lot. It’s true but something of an understatement. Writing requires boldness. Fearlessness. Honesty. (And pen names. Pen names are good!)
CW writes: “... I still get bad reviews.” This is honest. No one likes getting bad reviews, much less announcing the fact that one’s work has received bad reviews. But I think that truth, all sorts of truth (personal, moral, scientific, and so on), is crucial to good writing.
BTW, there is, occasionally, a price to pay for boldness and honesty. I think Chuck Wendig is insanely talented and brave, but I need to include this link to show that, while these qualities can be great for creating bingeable prose, bad things can happen.
3. Punch your reader in the face (Metaphorically!!)
As we’ve seen, CW writes: “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard.” This metaphor is in-your-face. It’s kinda uncomfortable. A little … gross? But that’s the point! CW’s writing isn’t tame. And it isn’t expected. I guess that’s another way of saying it’s creative. He ruthlessly mashes ideas that have nothing to do with each other together to create something new, interesting and -- if you actually did it -- possibly criminal!
Chuck Wendig writes:
“What I mean is this: the things I say at this blog and in my writing books is just advice. It’s not right. It’s also not automatically wrong. It’s just advice. It’s like if you ask me about sneakers and I’m like, “I wear these sneakers called Hoka One Ones, and they’re really great.” They are a real sneaker. I actually own and wear and love them. They’re great for me. It’s true. It’s like walking on air. It’s improved my running. They’ve ended my plantar fasciitis and also ended other associated running pains. And they might be great for some of you. For others? You might f****** hate them. But these shoes are what I know and so I will recommend them if you ask. Hell, even if you don’t ask.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)
I could have paired that quotation down, but I didn’t because it’s true and helpful.
4. Talk directly to your reader.
Notice that here, CW is talking right to the reader. He set up a mini-scene. The Reader has asked him a question about sneakers and he’s replying. And the reply makes a clear point in an entertaining way. I’ve noticed that this -- conversing with The Reader -- is a characteristic of CW’s blog posts. That is, he easily drifts into and out of using dialogue to communicate with The Reader. (Stephen King does this as well, but that’s a whole other blog post.)
ALSO, notice that when CW writes, “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard” he is talking to you, Dear Reader. Well, not really. I think he’s talking to a hypothetical reader. Most people write with some one person in mind, either real or imagined.
But still. When a flesh-and-blood person like yourself reads this, it feels more immediate, more personal.
Maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, but I think sometimes using dialogue is … Well, I think it’s understood that the writer is NOT talking to YOU per se, the writer is talking to a reader (Dear Reader) … when this happens I have in mind some one person who could be either real or imaginary. But still, it’s a little bit like you and I -- reader and writer -- are sharing a moment together. (But not in a weird way! Hopefully.)
Intimacy encourages interest.
“But I present you with this to consider:
“I do not much care for Tolkien’s work.
“No, no, put down that broken beer bottle. Relax. I recognize that I’m the outlier there …” (Chuck Wendig, An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice)
5. Poke your reader.
This builds on my point, above, about talking directly to Your Reader to create more of a sense of intimacy.
Good writing evokes emotions in your reader. When I read CW’s writing, above, I smiled. I have to admit my first reaction when I read “I do not much care for Tolkien’s work” was, “What! That can’t be true,” but then I read on and instead of being grumpy with CW I smiled. Which is good! In general, if you can make your readers smile, you’re doing something right.
I don't want to take us too far afield, but I've noticed that many of the people I enjoy talking with at cocktail parties open with a good natured poke, something that evokes mild tension/conflict. For example, I walk everywhere and as I walk I listen to podcasts. My friends will often poke me about wearing ugly headphones (they truly are hideous but the sound is amazing). That poke, that friendly jab, sparkes friendly verbal sparring.
Of course readers can't poke you back, but I think that injecting mild tension into your prose can make it more readable. Conflict is king.
“Junk can be wonderful. Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout? Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream? They’re junk, too. Ever seen a kid play with an empty box? An empty box is junk. But what they do with it — I mean, it’s a pirate ship, a boat, it’s knight armor, it’s an action figure base. Some junk is just trash, admittedly. But some junk is artful. Masterful. Just because it’s old — or cobbled together from various pieces — doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it junk.” (Chuck Wendig, The Rise Of Skywalker)
6. Ask Your Reader questions.
In the above quotation from his post, “The Rise of Skywalker …,” Chuck Wendig is talking to The Reader and he’s asking questions. “Have you ever seen a junkyard? An old-timey one …”, “Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream?” (And, yes, this is a good use of parallelism, but I’m trying not to get sidetracked!)
When I’m asked a question I perk up and pay attention. Now, of course, Chuck Wendig doesn’t know me, has never met me much less asked ME a question in real life. But, as someone who has read the above he kind of has. That is, as I read he is sharing his ideas with me -- and everyone else!
Remember the Holodeck on Star Trek? That's how I think our brains work. (See what I did there? lol) In the Holodeck you don't just see images, you're IN another reality. It is immersive.
We don’t just view ideas like images, we engage with them. They are us, we are them. Now that doesn’t mean that every time you think of pain you are in pain (that would be awful!) but if someone asks a question, even if it’s not directly to you, it's a bit like someone throwing a softball at you. Your hand automatically comes up and grabs it. (It's a little bit like saying, "Don't think of a white bear." You just did! Right? You can't read that sentence without, in some way, engaging with the idea of a white bear.)
Similarly, if someone asks 'you' a question, it engages you on another level. At least, that's what I think! Please let me know if you disagree.
7. Be vivid.
Staying with the same quotation from “The Rise of Skywalker …,” it is almost like Chuck Wendig is plucking images from his mind and popping them into ours. Take the sentences: “Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout?”
That’s vivid! You can SEE it. You can grasp that idea. Then, when you’ve both got (more-or-less) the same idea in mind, he can talk to you (The Reader) about it. It feels like you’re having something like a real conversation with the writer. (And no, I’m not encouraging readers to transition into stalkers!)
(BTW, Stephen King talks about this weird idea-sharing thing in his book On Writing. The chapter heading is “What Writing Is.” (For those who have already read the book, it’s where King talks about the white rabbit.))
Note: I thought about including this as a separate point but thought that might be dangerous. Here's what I want to say: If you have more-or-less mastered the basics of grammar, then don't get hung up on always writing grammatically correct prose. Before your manuscript goes out into the world, have a competent editor look it over, but when you're writing -- especially if it is informal writing -- don't be afraid of sentence fragments if you think one will help you to vividly communicate an idea or feeling. For example in the above quotation CW writes: "But some junk is artful. Masterful." And it works. (THAT's the ultimate criterion: Does it work?)
(a.) “I see this meme every so often.
(b.) “‘You can’t teach writing.”
(c.) “That is a hot, heaping hunk of horseshit and you should get shut of that malodorous idea.
(d.) “Anybody who puts this idea forward is high-as-f*** from huffing their own crap vapors, because here’s what they’re basically saying to you:
(e.) “‘I’m a writer/artist/creative person and I’m this way by dint of my birth — I was just born naturally talented, a*******! — and it can’t be taught so if you’re not born with it as I most graciously was, then you’re pretty much f***** and f*** you trying to learn anything about it and f*** anybody who tries to teach it and you might as well give up now, you talentless, tasteless, cardboard hack. Now kiss the ring, little worm.’
(f.) “Writing is a thing we learn. Which means it is a thing people teach.” (Chuck Wendig, A Short Rant on the You Can’t Teach Writing Meme)
8. Vary the length of sentences.
There’s a lot to unpack in the above quotation. It is an excellent example of how to inspire emotion in readers, and I’m going to get to that in a moment.
Right now I’d like to focus on how Chuck Wendig varies the length of sentences. Really good writers (from what I can tell) tend to vary the length of their sentences. They will have one, two, three (etc.) long sentences in a row and then pepper the page with a few short ones that condense or funnel the energy of the text. The short sentences bring the point home -- pow! Like the knockout punch of a boxer.
In Quotation 4, look at paragraph (e.). That paragraph has only two sentences. The first is LONG and it is packed with inflammatory language. Then the second, much shorter sentence, drives the point home (‘Now kiss the ring, little worm’).
Of course, CW isn’t saying this, he’s saying that people who feel like this are insufferable, but through his use of language he does a very good job of inspiring The Reader to intensely dislike them. And inspiring strong emotions in our readers is a BIG part of writing.
9. Over the top insults.
As I just said, I love the way Chuck Wendig ended the dialogue: Now kiss the ring, little worm. That is so outrageous it makes me laugh. It’s effective!
This gives me ideas for my own work. If you create a bully and you would like The Reader to want your protagonist to give the bully a black eye, then give the bully a speech that ends like this.
Chuck Wendig is very good at creating emotional hooks -- even in non-fiction!
10. Swear words are emotional.
Okay, I feel like there’s an elephant in the room, so let’s discuss this. Chuck Wendig swears a lot and, by their very nature, swear words are emotional.
Many people (most people?) feel that swear words are naughty. For some people, the very act of reading a swear word can feel transgressive -- forbidden. And every interesting thing ever (e.g., the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter novels) is forbidden. Or … well, at least MOST are.
I don’t use swear words in my own work because, for me, that would be like trying to learn to juggle while using dynamite. For Chuck Wendig, it works. I love his blog posts and I try to learn from them.
You have your own style, something that is expressive of who you are as a person. And, as you continue to read and write you will change and so, naturally, will your style. And that’s very cool.
Thanks for reading! (If you are Chuck Wendig then … Thank you! I hope you’re not upset that I examined your non-fiction writing in this way. I’m a huge fan. 😀 I would be interested in your feedback, if you have any.)
In Closing ...
Many times I’ve tried to puzzle out how I could write with a bit more boldness, a bit more flare, a bit more color. That’s why I began writing this post. So I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a tip or three you could share about how to improve a writer's voice?
What I'm doing/reading:
Right now I'm not reading any fiction. Later today I'm going to study two blog posts (this one and this one) and work on a YouTube script (about something totally unrelated). BUT I should read more fiction. Does anyone have a book they could recommend?
The following links lead to articles by Chuck Wendig and can be found on his fabulous NSFW blog, Terribleminds.
The Rise Of Skywalker, And How Star Wars Is Junk.
Writing Advice Is Bullshit.
An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice.
Tips On Horking Up Your Novel’s Zero Draft.
A Very Good List Of Vital Writing Advice — Do Not Ignore!
A Short Rant On The “You Can’t Teach Writing” Meme.
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Today I’m recommending The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I usually recommend novels, but a friend of mine told me it was very useful for him. I read it and I think, if you're going through couple trouble -- or even if you're not! -- it's a good read. Here is an excerpt:
"The 5 Love Languages is as practical as it is insightful. Updated to reflect the complexities of relationships today, this new edition reveals intrinsic truths and applies relevant, actionable wisdom in ways that work."
YouTube: Karen Woodward
1. What is a writer’s voice?
I was going to talk about the difference between a writer’s voice and a writer’s style by giving their definitions. But I’m not going to do that. First, I don’t think the difference between them is important to the points I’m making. Second, understanding the difference between these two notions wouldn’t help anyone understand what a writer’s voice is.
Chuck Wendig and Stephen King each have a strong voice, and they are two of my favorite authors. As you read the quotations, above, you’ll be able to FEEL the between their voices. I think that a writer’s voice is more felt/experienced than thought about/understood. It has more to do with the heart than the head.