|Writer's Voice: The elusive butterfly|
Why do some find “writer’s voice” so hard to define?
Our voice in writing doesn’t follow a specific set of rules such as those associated with punctuation, and it doesn’t fall into the predictable patterns we might find in spelling; voice, in writing, is as unique and diverse as those who write, which is what makes it so difficult to define.
The belief that voice in writing is distinctive proved to be a common sentiment among those responding to my question. As shared by Kathleen, the first contributor to our discussion thread, “Voice is what makes writing unique”. An educator and a writer, Kathleen has the distinct pleasure of helping others find their writing voices, to help them discover what makes their writing “different”, or unique, from all other writers. Iain also spoke to the fact that a writer’s voice is distinct when he wrote, “We all possess a voice as unique as our fingerprints”.
Kathleen added to our notion that voice can be difficult to describe by providing the following definition: “According to definition used in education in US, writing voice is the unique combination of style, tone/mood, language use (syntax, diction) and content/ideas used by the author. It is that complexity that makes it so hard for people to pinpoint”.
So then, what is “writer’s voice”?
As gleaned from our LinkedIn conversations, writer’s voice, like the purest of diamonds, has many facets. A writer’s voice reveals the individual style, personality, or persona of the scribe; whether the writing is personal or not, determines just how much of the writer is reflected in his or her penned words. Taking into consideration that writers either write through a personal lens or through character-tinted lenses, we found two divergent strands of the same conversation woven throughout our LinkedIn discussion.
Tammy so eloquently distinguished between our own personal voice in writing and those we take on for the sake of giving life to our characters with the following:
“In this thread we seem to have 2 definitions of voice under discussion: the writer's voice and the character's voice. Those are not really the same thing. The writer's voice is something that echoes in everything we write. We may or may not be aware of it when we write, but the reader knows it's there. In contrast, we carefully mold a character's voice as part of our characterization process. It is what connects the readers to our characters.”
In personal writing, voice is seen as a reflection of the writer. Tamar, for example, shared, “My writer’s voice is an extension of who I am in real life” while Patrice offered, “A writer’s voice is basically the way [we] speak, and comes from writing, writing, and more writing. I don't think it's something you can ‘hone’ it's more instinctive, and develops naturally.”
Writing for someone else or with the purpose of creating relatable characters requires the writer to alter his or her writing voice to be representative of those “characters” outside themselves. In response to how she uses voice to craft stories outside her individual persona, DeAnn shared, it’s how you “fashion your story, creatively: vocabulary, use of imagery/metaphor”.
K Stoddard offered the following insights to variation in voice,
“For myself as a professional, though, voice is not so simple as just sounding like myself all the time, unless I'm writing an essay type piece. For anything else - a story, a blog post, a web page or whatever - I have to find the right voice for the piece (formal, tongue-in-cheek, matter-of-fact, snarky, simple, loquacious, whatever), and once I've found it, off I go. That's the real fun of it, finding that voice, especially in a new story.”
How would one define “writer’s voice”, then? I’m not sure there is one single best way to describe one’s voice in writing. Can we agree, though, that something as unique and varied as writer’s voice should not be restrained to one definition but rather be open to interpretation, allowing for malleability from one writer to another?
I think the more important question is…
How, then, do we find our writer’s voice?
Through open, honest dialogue with yourself. It’s much like growing up; through our experiences we learn who we are, who we want to be, and who we don’t want to be. As a writer, you do the same thing. Ross so eloquently stated, “As for finding it [voice], in my experience it can't be forced. It grows with time and experience. Like growing a plant, there are things you can do to help it, but you cannot ‘make’ it.”
There were so many valuable offerings for how to find one’s writing voice in our discussion thread that I found myself amidst a flurry of relevant insights. While these do not represent even a fraction of what was shared, here are the contributions that resonated with me:
Mat spoke to the fact that what we read helps develop how we write:
“I think your voice comes from what you read, what you write, what you learn. Similar to how your personality comes about. Your personality grows and changes with you and with age, and so will your voice. I don't think you HAVE to work for it, I think it just comes. But if you want to work out what your voice is, go through what you have written and mark all the phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and other bits and pieces you personally like. That is probably your voice right there.”
Stephen also related reading to writing with, “In my experience, getting to your writer's voice starts with studying it by ‘listening’ to your own writing as well as the writing voice of others. Great novelists are exceptionally skilled at voice. I do this by slowing my reading down to speaking speed, and imagine the author (or character if it's fiction) actually speaking the words out loud.”
So, not only do you want to write a lot but you want to read a lot. Read other authors, those you are familiar with as well as those who are new to you. Read across genres, as this will give you a wealth of experiences to draw from. And, read your own writing! Reading your own writing out loud is a great way to “listen” for your voice (although some tend to disagree with this strategy, I, personally, find it helpful). You might also want to try writing across genres, even if it’s just for fun, as this will challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and allow your voice to kick in.
Gay chimed in to the discussion with, “Lots of good thoughts--to which I'll add the simple trick of putting myself in the mood I want to convey. If I want cute and perky, I put myself in a cute and perky--meaning energetic, upbeat, fun--state of mind/body/heart/soul. Whatever I'm feeling in my gut, that's going to come through.”
I’ll close this portion of our conversation with an insightful reflection from Winston, “In retrospect, I think a good 85% of finding your voice is about trusting yourself and the notion that if you're excited about what you're writing, your readers will be, too.”
It seems, then, that it’s not really a matter of finding your voice in writing but allowing your voice to find you. Which brings me to our final topic…
How to stay true to your voice
Just as finding our writer’s voice requires a lot of writing, so, too, does staying true to our voice. As writers, we tend to second guess ourselves, grappling with doubts about our abilities and talents to eloquently pen words. We “hear” other writers’ voices and, maybe on a subconscious level, try to emulate theirs, and in so doing deprive ourselves of nurturing our own.
According to Iain, “Retaining our own voice, distinct from those writers we admire, is an ongoing process.” Ross spoke to this when he shared, “But I think that a significant part of the writer's craft is learning how to be aware of ourselves and our attitude, and learning the discipline to control the amount of influence our emotions have on our voice”, while Jenna suggested, “Writing from my heart and my experiences helps me stay true to my voice.”
Part of staying true to our voice is being able to control it. As Tammy put it, “To harness your voice, look at your attitude as you write. Voice reflects not the way you speak, but the way you think. It flows from the subconscious.” Tammy then shared her experience of working with a fellow writer, “She didn't know how to harness her voice, so it ran wild. As an editor, I had to come in and not change it, but tame it.”
When we find our writer’s voice escaping us, or “eluding" us, it helps to reach out to fellow scribes, which is what I did with my LinkedIn peers. I learned much about the craft of writing but even more about the sharing of our craft with other writers, and I thank each one of you!
While I may still find myself plagued with insecurities and faced with obstacles, I have discovered that if I can relax and sit in the company of my own voice within, I just might find that elusive butterfly alighted atop my page.
Help us continue this conversation by sharing your thoughts and insights on writer’s voice in the comments below.