30 November 2010

Start searching if you want to find your writing voice

Voice. Voice, voice, voice. The holy Grail for every budding writer.

We all set out on our writing journey desperately seeking that indefinable… thing. That special something that makes our creative work distinctly ours and ours alone. Our voice.

Sadly, not everyone finds their writing voice. That’s why so many people either give up searching or hit a wall with their writing. It’s also why so much writing tends to ‘sound like such and such’, because it’s easier to imitate than it is to speak in a voice of our own design.

That word is really important: design. At its heart, design means to make a creative decision. To create something both on and with purpose.

All writers are aware of the concept of voice, but far too many ignore the first part of that often used phrase: ‘to find your voice’. They either think that it’s inherent in the very act of them writing, or they don’t actively search.

And if you don’t look for something, you very rarely find it.

It’s only natural

So where can we find our voice? Many people think it comes from within, that it’s something we all have, we just need to ease it out and on to the page.

There’s some truth to that. Certainly, you’re writing will be influenced by how you live, think and approach your life.

But I want to go back to that word design for a second. I want you to think about voice as a more, I don’t know, a more flexible thing. Something that you can control. Something that you can make a creative decision about.

A bit about me

I got my first job in writing seven years ago, editing a university’s various prospectuses.

As part of my interview, I had to take a 100 word passage and half it without losing the meaning or message. I did it, got the job and spent the next three years doing much the same on a daily basis.

The job was repetitive, if not a little boring after a while, but it was also a revelation. It taught me how to edit and it helped me find my voice – both as a copywriter and in my fiction.

Actually, that’s wrong. More accurately, it helped me make a conscious decision about what I wanted my voice to be.

As a result, I can split my writing into two time periods. There is pre-that-decision, when I produced good, but slightly meandering work. And there is post-that-decision, when I became a fierce editor, an economist with words.

I made a choice about my writing. I saw where I was and where I wanted to be. And then I sought out my voice. I made a conscious effort to find it.

An assignment

So what I’m saying is, don’t sit around and wait for your voice to fins you, actively seek it out. Experiment with style. Writer shorter sentences. Or longer, perhaps. Just find the time to play with language.

Here’s a small writing assignment to get you started. Describe what you think your current voice is in five bullet points. Think about the way you write, including your approach, process and style.

Don’t think too hard. Just make sure you’re honest.

When you’ve finished, make another list. This time describe what you think you would like your voice to be. Think carefully about the words you choose. Be technical, if you want. Or emotional. It’s up to you.

You may find that some items appear on both lists and that would make sense. When writers find their voice it’s never usually a complete shift in technique, more refinement and thoughtful adjustment.

The important thing is to actually look for your voice. Don’t wait for it to one day burst from your fingertips and on to the screen. Writing, like design, is about decisions. Be prepared to make some.

Image: mdanys

Further reading

I’m primarily thinking about voice when writing fiction in this article, but the gist of what I’m saying applies to all forms of scribbling. Here are some other articles on the same subject. Make sure you come back.

23 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I come across lots of discussions of “voice” that go so endlessly round in circles you’d think it was some kind of mythic Becket-esque unfathomable. I shall look forward to doing these exercises and bringing some clarity to it. What I have been aware of for a while is that my non-fiction articles/reviews have a very much more distinct voice than my fiction and poetry. It hadn’t occurred to me until reading this that the reason may be that I have made a conscious decision that I’d write reviews in a particular kind of sardonic, slightly surreal way, full of half references and broken sentences and anecdotes. In other words, I had made choices both about a style I wanted and about technical means for achieving it. neither of which I’ve done for fiction.

    • Iain Broome (Author)

      Ab-so-lutely! Whether it’s copywriting or fiction you have to make a conscious effort to think about your style and how you want to, well, read. It’s easy for copywriters because we have all these rules and regulations to guide us, but fiction, poetry et al provide a sense of freedom and we forget to impose our own restrictions.

      Let us know how you get on and thanks for a great comment.

  2. Good advice.

    A really skilled writer isn’t limited to a single voice. That really takes work, but it’s especially important for the novelist or playwright, and strangely, the business writer. I’m a bit of all three, and I’ve found that the business writer has to be able to develop a voice for the specific project, just like one would develop a character or the approach for a specific work.

    I’m confident that there’s some “metavoice” that runs through all of my disparate works, but I hope that it isn’t accessible without a little probing.

    But I like your approach – specific exercises and assignments, not just writing, is what helps the writer not only to develop their own voice, but to understand what it is and how it works.

    • Iain Broome (Author)

      You’re right, if you write in a range of disciplines or genres there’s every
      chance you have more than one voice. I certainly do. But you’re also right
      about that metavoice that runs through all a writer’s work. And that’s why
      it’s important to experiment and actively search out and make some decisions
      about your voice.

      Thanks for the comment Randy – thought-provoking as ever!

  3. Anixbg

    Hi Iain Broome

    I have a great desire to write, my head is full of ideas, but to my great
    Unfortunately English is not my first language ….. translations seem to us like hell
    expensive and via Google translator is translating into disastrous to someone
    phrases ….:))

  4. I agree with you that finding your writing voice is all about hard work, practice, and creative choice. I also think that we each have a unique world view, based on life experiences, local culture, and personality that, when “uncovered” or “realized” is the basis of our writing voice (expression). I’ve featured your article on this week’s Blogtalk on http://www.writingthroughlife.com (will be posted on Friday, Dec. 3rd) and am looking forward to further lively conversation. I always enjoy your posts.

  5. Loved this post! I just started a blog a few weeks ago and I’ve noticed how much more natural my “blogging” voice is than my fiction voice. I’m hoping with practice I can bring some of the fun I’m having with the blog posts into my short stories and novel-in-progress. Easier said than done!

  6. Iain Broome (Author)

    Well thank you for the kind words and thank you again for the recommendation. I’ll pop over and check it it out.

  7. I think in fiction, you shouldn’t have just one voice. It should depend on the narrator. You can have a particular style, but even that can depend on the narrator. I wouldn’t want to read five different stories by the same author featuring different characters and have them all sound the same.

    That being said, you have to find the voice and style for each piece, and it’s not always easy.

    • Iain Broome (Author)

      I think the very best writers do exactly what you describe, and yet no matter which piece of work of theirs you read, you still instantly recognise it as being theirs. That’s what I think voice is all about.

      Good point – thanks.

  8. Don’t be afraid to get a comment like ‘THats sooo typically *you*’. Celebrate your uniqueness!

  9. Robin Storey

    I agree that finding your voice is a matter of practice and experimentation. I am writing my third fiction novel and I feel that only now am I really confident in my own voice – a literary version of being comfortable in my skin. No matter what type of writing you’re doing, there is still an underlying voice that is ‘you.’ And I think ‘voice’ is an apt word as I often think I can hear the author’s words as an actual voice in my head. (or am I schizophrenic?)
    http://allwritersarecrazy.wordpress.com/

    • Iain Broome (Author)

      I think that’s the important point, that no matter what you write there will be something that is very much your voice permeating throughout. It’s hard to achieve, that’s for sure. But much easier once you’ve started to make a few decisions about what you want your voice to be.

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