Ah, voice. As writers, we hear about it a lot. Lately, I’ve seen discussion of it crop up on social media, and I’ve been scribbling a lot of notes about voice in the margins of the manuscripts I’ve been editing.
We’ve all heard the advice: Write what you want to read. And this, I think, has just as much to do with voice as is does plot. A lot of finding your voice has to do with telling the story you want to tell in such a way that only you could tell it. Your voice is the particular tone, style, technique, and word choices you use to tell your story, but it’s also the unique perspective, personality, and flavor that only you can bring to it. How you approach the world, how you interpret your surroundings, and how you filter it all onto the page is your voice.
You’re totally clear on what voice is now, right?
This is why we can procrastinate and resist writing. This is why we’d sometimes rather comb the cat or clean toilets than park our bums and just write. Because if you start to think about voice, or more precisely, if you start to wonder what voice is and how does one find such a thing and what if you don’t have one, not much writing will get done because panic will open the door for that inner critic, and the inner critic will win.
First of all, you have a voice. You do. But we always talk about finding that voice. Here’s a trick: go back and read old writings, whether they be journal entries, blog posts, whatever, but read them chronologically. Start with the oldest piece of writing and work your way to the present. I bet you’ll see a thread of recognition in each one, and I bet that thread gets more vibrant the closer you get to your most current writings. That thread of recognition? Those telltale signs that some bit of writing is yours and yours alone? That’s your voice. And it’s not your voice because it’s brilliant or quirky or offbeat or astoundingly new, though it may be. It’s your voice because, even when taken out of context, it’s your style — your particular makeup of word choice, flow, rhythm, cadence, personality, and perspective.
A good voice is original and credible. A good voice has the ability to remain consistent even as the plot shifts. A good voice carries the reader through to the end of the piece, essay, novel, etc. but doesn’t overshadow the story.
So here’s how to succeed in finding your voice: don’t overthink it. This is why freewriting can be so powerful. Get out of your own way, write a lot, and most likely your voice will find you. Be mindful of the narrative techniques you tend to gravitate toward (metaphors, hyperbole, foreshadowing, backstory, etc.) but don’t obsess over them*, and try not to veer wildly off course. (i.e. Sophie Kinsella said that she once tried to write a thriller wherein she had written a cast of really nice people who suddenly started killing each other.)
*In the process of finding and cultivating your voice through journal entries, first drafts of novels, picture books, essays, etc. it’s fine to fall back on devices like metaphors and backstory, etc., but once you move on to subsequent drafts you’ll need to take a critical eye to the piece and try to recognize when something is overplayed.
Discovering our voice means we have to write the story we want to read in the most authentic way we can, which is the only way it’s going to be a success. Scratch that. It’s the only way we’ll write to the end.
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