Friday, June 11, 2021

How to Find, Develop, and Let Your Writing Voice Shine--Three Tips

One of my long-time students asked a great question: how does a writer develop voice?

I wanted to make sure she was talking about the writer's voice. Because there are two kinds of voice in books: the voice of the narrative, the writer's unique authenticity, and the voice of the characters. They are very different in how they are found, developed, and realized on the page.

Writer's voice comes as a natural process of maturing in your writing--as you begin to recognize what makes your writing unique and different in style and texture, as you begin to let go the fear of needing to fit in or sound like another writer you've long admired. It takes time, for most of us.

It can be elusive in the beginning. I was trained as a journalist--newspaper and magazine columnist--for many decades, so my early writing voice was sculpted to fit publications that paid me each week. I ventured into some uniqueness but most of my attempts got edited out, so I learned to conform. I didn't mind, at the time. They were paying me to write, something that I'd always wanted to do, and I enjoyed seeing my byline. After about a decade of publishing weekly and monthly columns, I had developed a kind of voice, a signature in how I said things. But it took that long for the editors to trust me and me to trust myself.

Writing voice emerges for most writers over time, as we foster this trust in self and find venues to showcase our "signature."

Books, however, depend on voice. Each author needs to sound and read in their own unique way, so readers can know them by their style. We would never mistake a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance. I would bet those writers had to find and develop their voices, over time, too. Although who knows? I can also imagine them being born with their unique styles.

Readers, though, listen for voice in each book they read. What makes this author's writing different, distinctive? Delightful in its own way? That's voice and it is a huge component of story nowadays.

Writers worry about this, as my student mentioned above did. The elusive hunt for voice is much discussed in writing books, classes, and MFA programs. It's a rite of passage, but like most maturing processes, it falls flat if writers try too hard to foster it.

That's the Catch-22: Voice comes with careful cultivation in my view. It arises organically. It can't be rushed, no more than any other growth and change that works from the inside out.

But there are ways to help you find, develop, and let your voice shine. I wanted to share three small steps I think are incredibly helpful to individuate and develop a writing voice.

1. Read up. Like learning any skill, it's best to study those who are better than you. Read up. Read writers who have strong voice in their work. One of my students was learning voice and asked where to begin reading. I told him to start with the prize-winners: Pulitzer, Man-Booker, Orange, and other prizes are often worth looking at. He went to the Pulitzer website and began working his way through the list. His writing voice improved dramatically within a year, just from immersing himself in those great voices.

2. Model. In art classes, we paint the masters. We sit in front of their paintings--Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne--and paint copies. Traditional way of creating cellular memory, eye-hand coordination, painters have done it for centuries. Writers are scared to do this--"What if I forget it's not mine and use it by mistake later?" I never met a painter who worried about this. Keep clean, and model carefully, and make sure your work is yours, and you'll be OK.

Modeling is a great technique for learning rhythm and voice. Why is a certain word used, why a paragraph break just there? Find a passage in a work you love and type it out (labeling it as the author's, not yours). See what your hand and eye and brain learn.

3. Study structure. Most writers hate structure, the antithesis of the free-flow creativity that's writing is supposed to be all about. Do you really think the great writers don't pay attention to structure? Voice and most writing skills are built on solid understanding of structure, how a piece is built from the ground up. By the time it's published, it comes across to the reader as natural, free flowing. But there are months or years of sweat and construction behind every piece of good writing.

Some writers print out their pages and lay them on a table, squinting at them to notice the rhythm of text and white space. Others read them aloud. Others ask friends to read them aloud and the writer listens. This teaches about voice, when it's present--clear uniqueness and surprise--and when it's not.

Voice is consciousness. Not being asleep. Whatever you can do to wake yourself up, is how you develop voice. Structure is one of the first ways.

The final tip is a global one, useful for any endeavor: Put in your 10,000 hours.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously said that mastering a skill takes about 10,000 hours. In our instant gratification world, we somehow believe voice should come naturally or not at all. Have you put in your time? Writing every day. Studying the great writers. Taking classes. Exchanging work and learning how to give feedback so you can begin to see where your own writing needs it. Learning basic grammar, sentence structure, even spelling.

I believe each of us has a unique writing voice, dormant inside. It's been smothered and silenced by schooling and years of criticism and self-doubt. Rare is the family and society and school that fosters uniqueness; most ask children and young adults and adult writers to conform and not stand out. We're easier to deal with, that way.

But if you believe you have a voice, waiting to come forth, and you are willing to put in your time to uncover it and develop it, you'll win. It takes work to coax it out of hiding and refine it for the page.

I'll be teaching more about voice in my workshop happening tomorrow on zoom. Interested in joining our curious and lively community for an afternoon, click here.

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