“I am looking for authors with a distinctive voice.”
“Great premise but I couldn’t connect with the writer’s voice.”
“The voice isn’t strong enough in the first ten pages to make me keep reading.”
So what do editors mean by “voice” when they talk about the craft of writing?
Voice is the individual writing style of an author. It’s the way a narrator tells their story. When you put yourself into words it’s your personality on paper.
Ouch. Does this mean the editor doesn’t like you?
Not exactly. Criticisms of your voice, or the lack thereof, suggests you think long and hard about the way in which you express yourself in writing. Let your distinct personality, perspective, or world-view shine in your prose. Too often writers try to write in a manner so bland as to offend no one. It ends up sounding like something written by a committee instead of a real person.
If you were a musician instead of a writer, performing a piece note-for-note with perfect pitch in synch with a metronome isn’t enough. If it lacks expression, the performance is at best merely mediocre. Making the song your own is what distinguishes the rock star from the karaoke singer.
Even though the basic melody is the same, Prince’s song Purple Rain sounds entirely different when sung by Tom Jones, LeAnn Rimes, Bruce Springsteen, and Etta James. Each of these singers has a distinctive voice which is different from the one belonging only to the Purple One.
Even though they write about family, the voices of Jane Smiley, Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris, Terry Tempest Williams, Frank McCourt, and Mary Karr are distinctive. You would not mistake one writer from another. In fact, you could probably identify their voice from a single page of something they’ve written.
As a developmental editor I work with authors to develop their voice. Writing a book with perfect grammar, punctuation, and proper citations is not enough. It’s got to reveal the writer’s soul.
A strong, clear, well-defined voice is the glue that binds your words together. It helps your readers “hear” you: they understand who you are and engages them in your story.
Voice is about honesty. It’s about putting your authentic self out there and having the courage to express who you really are. It’s risky to make yourself vulnerable. A risk worth taking.
Voice isn’t something you learn. It isn’t something you can copy. It’s something you find within yourself. Listen to that inner voice in your head. That’s the one you want to tap into and capture on the page.
Most importantly, voice isn’t found by overwriting. Going over the same passage and fretting about word choices or grammatical structure won’t help. It can’t be found when using purple prose. Don’t use fifty cent words when nickel words will do. Ornate, flowery, or melodramatic language draws excessive attention to the writing and distracts from the substance of what you’re trying to communicate. Purple prose is characterized by the abuse of adjectives, adverbs, zombie nouns, and metaphors. Don’t try to “sound” writer-ly. Be natural, not contrived. Your voice is like the fingerprint of your writing. It must be unique to you and you alone.
So how do you find your voice? It’s not lost. It’s inside you. Look deep. Deeper than the self you present to others. That inner self filled with shame, self-loathing, doubt, pain, guilt. That vulnerable self you rarely reveal during even the most intense psychotherapy sessions. That self.
Let that self speak and write with passion. Your ideas, beliefs, and emotions intertwine in the articulation of your writing voice.
As a writer, analyzing your own voice can make you self-conscious in the same way listening to your voice on tape-recording does. Do I really sound like that? The voice you hear inside your head seems distorted when you hear what your voice sounds like to others. It takes a little while to grow accustomed to hearing yourself in audio recordings.
Musicians record themselves when they practice in order to notice things they wouldn’t otherwise; weaknesses and strengths. Their best performances happen when they have a clear idea of what they want to sound like, connecting deeply inside their mind’s ear. As a writer take some time to listen and evaluate your own voice in things you’ve previously written. Then as you conceive new work, your voice will be closer to what you imagine it to be.
Remember that it’s better you hear yourself first, gutturals and all, before your readers do. Push past this resistance to listening to your voice. Here are some tips for developing and refining your writing voice:
Start by making a list of adjectives others might use to describe you. Does your writing reflect these traits?
Are there certain words or phrases you use when your emotions are heightened? Jot them down.
Think about your favorite writers and identify the qualities you notice about their voices. You like these writers because their voices speak to you. Talk back to these writers.
Let yourself write badly. Keep going and see what you’re going to say next. Your voice will emerge. You have something special to say and the way you say it needs to be special.
Throw all that you know about grammar and the structure of a respectable sentence out the window. You don’t talk that way. Never will. Listen to the voice in your head. You know. The one that speaks in sentence fragments. Or interjects in the middle of a sentence.
Write fast with pen and paper. Pound out a rant while you squelch your inner editor.
Let those quirky turns of phrase fly out of your fingers. Don’t judge what you’ve written.
Write what compels you. The stuff that gets under your skin, makes you giddy, or pisses you off. Write from the gut and don’t overthink it.
Think about the patterns in your emotional life, peculiar habits, choice of words, and colloquial language you use and how they make you distinctive.
Use your authentic voice to imbue the events you narrate with appropriate emotion.
Don’t be afraid of being weird. Add those quirky details. They add life and color.
Prince gave all of us permission to be weird. His worst fear? Being normal.