As a short story and novel dabbler, I often wonder how my voice can come through in some sections of a story and then totally fall flat in others. Am I not being true to myself? Am I not tapping into the muse? Are the writing gods forsaking me? What other myths can I use to convince myself there is an easy track to developing my own voice as a writer?
For this post, I am going to look at what is typically recommended to writers for developing voice in writing, and then I will provide my own opinions (which don’t differ too much, but there are a few things I would like to address).
Developing that voice
There are a few main recommendations I see often, and they fall into two categories:
Now, to briefly define both terms in the context of this post (these are the ways I have seen it so be gentle):
- Emulation is the focus of writing using the style of an author you like each time you sit down to write with the sole purpose of taking the things you enjoy from their style. An example of this would be your 13-year-old self sitting at a desk and trying to write a Lovecraftian-style story because you think complex diction and inflated syntax is super cool. Another example would be a musician listening to a record and playing the music back. Eventually, the idea is that the musician (or writer in this case) will adopt the nuances of the person they are emulating and that will mesh with an existing skill set (or other emulations) to create a new style of writing wholly original to the author.
- Immersion is literally just a writer focusing on a style and in a genre for a sustained amount of time until a style grows from trial and error. That is, if you read and write in sci-fi for long enough, you will adopt a style that is beneficial to explain science fiction ideas or that adopts a voice you are comfortable with. I like to think of pulp writers during the turn of the 1900s. You could tell there were a lot of good writers there, but you could also tell a lot of them were adopting a style befitting a pulp writer (a style beneficial to quickly cranking out prose for money). This goes for any other genre of writing as well.
(These are a few ideas. I don’t know if I’m totally on board with them as a sole practice, but I have found some aspects of both ideas beneficial to my writing).
There are other ways and explanations, too. Leah McClellan, writing for simplewriting.org, states that a writer’s voice is a combination of “Attitude, tone, and personal style.” “Attitude is about emotion, values, and beliefs,” she writes. “ … Tone of voice in your writing is similar to tone of voice while talking … it’s not what you say—the facts—but how you say it (or write it).” Personal style, she writes, is “revealed with vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and the more technical aspects of writing.” I think these are definitely fair points and if it’s beneficial for you to think of writing as an extended metaphor (and metaphors can be super beneficial), I think you will find her advice useful.
My Opinion on Writing and Voice
Writing is a skill that you have to practice. That’s it, that’s all. You have to learn the rules and use them to the best of your ability, and outside of the application of prescriptive grammar, you have to practice conveying a message to people who probably understand descriptive grammar (we can get into this in another blog post). I’m not saying prescriptive grammar is the right approach or the be-all and end-all and I’m not saying because we live in descriptive grammar bubbles online that we should simply throw out the rules, but you as a writer have to start with the mechanics and then learn how to break the rules to extend your writing in a more digestible way for your readers (audience awareness is extremely important). That is, if you have a new and unique style, can you explain why it works without saying “It just does,” or that it comes from some spectral voice inside your mind? Rationale does wonders for development and progression.
With that being said, you also have to dispel the myths of writing, which include things like “writing is a God-given gift,” “writers are depressed geniuses,” “substance abuse makes writing better,” “you need a degree in writing to be a writer.” All of these ideas inhibit creativity and get in the way of style and voice, and these myths perpetuate crappy narratives about an otherwise normal skill that needs to be practiced and honed if one wants it to develop into something better—like a piece of writing with an original voice.