I did research on writing voice assuming that I didn’t have as much to say as others did, but found most give about the same pieces of advice. I also found, when explaining how frustrating this was, that I have way more opinions than I realized.
There are many different parts that make up a “voice,” but today I’m going to talk about why you want to find yours. Next time I’ll write more on the technical bits.
What is voice?
Voice is basically how you are going to write something. It’s the way your words will feel or sound inside your readers’ heads. This doesn’t have to be your own, natural voice either. As we’ll discuss in a moment, many situations call for the use of a brand new one or for you to match someone else’s.
But why bother?
A case against it
Noah Berlatsky wrote an article about this in the Atlantic some time ago. He argues that, while it is commonly given advice, it has been a distraction if not a detraction to his career. In this article he talks about changing his voice to submit to literary magazines, and how he had to force himself to sound more like the other writers when collaborating. Even when writing on his own, he says that he had to modify his voice for his intended audience.
It is an interesting read, so I recommend taking a look, however I must respectfully disagree with the premise. Please allow me to explain:
Benefits outside of writing
Even if you decide not to publish another word, I truly believe that finding your writing voice is important. Why? Because it all comes down to confidence.
I’m not saying that you are going to go from socially anxious wallflower to politician just because you can write an essay. I am saying that it’s a good first step. Think about it this way: finding your voice is mostly about figuring out who you are. Once you know who you are, and you’ve developed the confidence to express that in your writing, you are once step closer to confidence in the “real world.”
There are obviously a lot more steps after this one, and confidence is not just a matter of following instructions. Getting there is outside the scope of this particular post, however.
Voice helps both fiction and nonfiction writers
Voice is one of those things that does a lot of heavy lifting. It helps you to stand out, it contributes to your personal brand, it helps with your interaction with your audience, and even helps you to write faster.
When you collaborate with other writers on a project where you all are writing together on all the same parts, or different parts that should be pasted together into a whole, you can expect that you will have to write with the same voice. However, you will still need to actually get that job.
You will most likely communicate with someone via email, submit writing samples, have your Twitter feed/Facebook examined, etc. If you write with your own, unique voice, you have a chance at standing out among all the other writers hungry for that job. You won’t disappear in a fog of rambling words while trying to say, “please hire me!” There’s another point related to this that I’m going to talk about in a second.
Even when trying to find an agent, or pitching your projects to publishers, you want to have your voice figured out. Having an interesting, consistent voice that sounds like you know what you’re talking about is a great way to grab someone’s attention.
I know, I know. So many people hate this phrase. I promise you, though, that it is not what it’s made out to be. I’ll write more on this topic later, but for now I’ll just say that it is literally how you appear to the rest of the world. Working on your personal brand isn’t making a fake persona, but making your impression a little less scatter brained.
As far as writing voice goes, your personal brand is represented in everything you write, and finding your voice lends to a successful personal brand.
It is recommended time and again that you interact with your audience. That can be in the form of answering questions, giving updates on projects, or just posting cat pics online, but you are sharing words with them in some form. Your voice can make or break this type of relationship – or, more specifically, not having a voice can.
Yes, I know it sounds unlikely. But think about it this way: once you know how you are going to write something, doesn’t writing it go much faster? Why not develop a steady, consistent voice so you don’t have to worry about that aspect of writing anymore? Once you stop waffling over tone and word choices, you can focus on your content and research.
Voice helps nonfiction writers
Along with everything above, voice can assist nonfiction writers with making dryer material more interesting and lend credibility to your work. Imagine the Ben Stein versus Bill Nye talking to you about the molting habits of insects. Or as far as credibility, imagine Bill Nye referring to every tool of his as a “thingy” and glossing over his explanation with “then some science stuff happens I think.”
Voice helps fiction writers
Finally, my favorite part! Earlier I mentioned that there was an idea related to writing collaboratively I was going to write about later. Now’s that time. Knowing how to find and refine your own voice, means you will be able to find and refine many voices.
This will help you when you work collaboratively, in that you will be able to easily adapt to the “house” style, but it will also be a boon for writing characters and narration.
For characters, everyone speaks differently. The parts that make up dialogue are going to be very similar to the parts that make up one’s voice. If you are able to figure out how to personalize these parts to your characters, every one of them will sound unique. Working on believable and interesting characters is a different post.
When you watch a movie with Tom Cruise in it, you know you are watching Tom Cruise. This is because when he is in something, it is Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise playing [insert character’s name here]. This is not a bad thing necessarily. It’s an artistic choice.
Similarly, there are writers who, when a familiar reader sees just the very first line of one of their books, can automatically be identified.
But then we have Gary Oldman. I have been midway through a movie he was in and swore when I realized he was in it, because he melts into his characters. When the camera is rolling, Oldman no longer exists.
Writers who take this approach use the narrator’s voice purposefully. Maybe they need to have an unreliable narrator, or one that has no idea what is going on in general. Maybe they need to have a narrator that understands what’s going on as a sort of anchor while the main character bumbles about. Horror novels tend to have a different voice from romance novels – and you aren’t forced to write one or the other.
Voice is essential to enhancing your writing, your career, and your life, even if you don’t use it very often.
Next week I’ll post more about the parts that make up your writing voice as well as advice (both mine and others’) on how to develop your own.
Do you have your own opinions on if you should or should not develop your own writing voice? Please share in the comments!