Voice: so important for writers, yet so damn difficult to define. Agents and editors frequently say things like “I’m looking for a distinctive voice”, but they tend not to elaborate on what they mean, exactly. If you’re a novice writer, how do you begin to work on such an elusive quality if you don’t even know what it is?
Some industry insiders have tried to define voice. Here is Rachelle Gardner’s take on the topic. Chuck Wendig tackles it here. Donald Maass takes a swipe here. And here, Jerry Jenkins talks about unraveling the mystery of a unique writing voice.
In my opinion, voice is an amalgamation of a lot of things. Voice is style, yes, but it’s also word choice, rhythm, pacing, and syntax. It’s the attitude that comes through your words. The personality that radiates off the page. It’s the use of curse words, or sentence fragments, or a predilection for semicolons…
It’s the whole combined, synergistic effect of all those elements that land on the page and in the reader’s ears as being distinctive, unique…and completely YOU.
The question is, how to cultivate your voice? People often talk about “finding your voice”, like it’s something that was lost. If you flip up enough couch cushions and peek inside the suitcase pockets from your last trip (seriously, that’s where I ALWAYS find lost things) you’ll simply locate it. Oh, THERE you are. I’ve been looking for you…
But I don’t think that’s the right way of approaching voice. I don’t think it’s a sock that’s stuck in the lint trap. I don’t think it can be found. I think it’s something that needs to be nurtured, cultivated, fed and watered and encouraged to grow.
Another thing that bothers me about the use of the word found, is that it implies a one-time event. A task to be completed. Saying you “found” your voice suggests your work is done. GOT IT. Whew, thank goodness I found that. Now let’s do some writing.
No…I think voice is something you continue to work on. It’s a work in progress. It evolves continuously.
So how do you nurture your voice? I have a few suggestions.
The first step to cultivating your voice is to read. A lot. Read within your genre and read outside your genre. Read pretty much everything you can get your hands on. Reading is how you tune your ear, how you learn what makes a book. It’s also how you’ll learn, over time, the styles and voices that speak to you. It’s how you begin homing in on your voice. Of course I figure if you want to write, you must already love to read…but life is busy. Sometimes reading time suffers. You need to make it a priority. Not convinced? Here are Stephen King’s thoughts:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ~Stephen King
Lots and lots and lots. Every day. Flex your writing muscles constantly. Experiment with writing at different times of day, in different places, in different moods. See what comes out of you. Take a look at what you’ve written, get some feedback, then try again. You’ve heard it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in something? Start accumulating those hours now.
The truth is, you have to write A LOT of shitty words before the good stuff starts to come out, so don’t get precious about it, just get going.
I’m calling this “the artist’s exercise” because it’s a well-known technique within the visual art world. Have you ever been to an art gallery or museum, and you encounter a small cluster of students with their sketchbooks and easels, copying a famous work of art?
That’s what you’re going to do, but with words.
Take a book you love, an author you admire, and literally copy out—word for word—passages from that book. You can write it out longhand or type it into a document.
To be clear: I’m not talking about plagiarism. You won’t be passing this work off as your own. Instead, it’s to get the feel of the words. It’s to roll them around in your mouth, like you’re tasting a fine wine. It’s to dig into them with your fingers like a sculptor working with clay.
In turn, when it’s time to create your own words and sentences, those feelings will be infused into your creative mind.
Do this exercise with a variety of authors, a variety of books. You’ll develop a deeper awareness of—and appreciation for—the beautiful tapestry of writerly voices, in your quest to develop your own.
There’s a good chance you haven’t looked at poetry since your high school days when you were forced to dissect Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”. But trust me, reading poetry as an adult, voluntarily, is a completely different endeavor than those enforced (and torturesome) analyses in school.
Even if you don’t believe your voice is “poetic” per se, you can learn a lot through poetry. In a poem, there are no wasted words. Every word is there because it was specifically selected to play a role. Through reading poetry, you see the beauty in economic word choice. You feel the rhythm of words, and the sound of words.
Writing exercises force you to work muscles you might otherwise neglect. They can stretch your creativity, push you outside your comfort zone, and make you try things you typically shy away from. Although it may feel a little middle school to do them, it can be very worthwhile.
Where to find good writing exercises? Well, the internet is filled with resources, but here are a few to get you started:
Because writing is a craft, we all need to learn the fundamentals…and then we need to keep on learning. There is a plethora of ways to do this: online classes, writing groups, critique partners, conferences, and more. Choose the method (or methods) that work for you and get learning.
This one also comes with a caveat: it’s important to remember that every writing teacher and mentor you encounter will have different opinions, experiences, and advice. What works for one writer will not work for another. That applies to all aspects of the craft, but nowhere does this individuality show itself more than when it comes to voice.
Soak up as much advice as you can, absorb the feedback, and stuff yourself full of craft. Then try it out yourself and see what works.
Now you tell me: how do YOU work on cultivating your voice? Are there authors whose voices you particularly admire?