Recognizing Your Voice

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“A defective voice will always preclude an artist from achieving the complete development of his art, however intelligent he may be… The voice is an instrument which the artist must learn to use with suppleness and sureness, as if it were a limb.” —Sarah Bernhardt

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably had a writing teacher encourage you to find your voice or heard a fellow writer claiming to have found hers. Maybe you’ve even used the phrase yourself.

So many writers seem to suffer from laryngitis that sometimes I wonder if there’s a mutant strain of streptococcus circulating through the writing community. Is voice really such an elusive thing that it’s lost this frequently and found only with much effort?

Voice is nebulous, in part because it can be hard to define—with respect to writing, that is. After all, you know what your speaking voice is; it’s that sound you make when you open your mouth. You can vary it by singing, whispering, or yelling, affecting an accent or peppering it with slang, but any way you serve it up, it is always indubitably you.

Background Image: Duncan C/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Voice in writing is, well, it’s like your speaking voice, only on paper. Your voice, the author’s voice. If you write fiction, don’t confuse voice with point-of-view—the perspective of your narrator or protagonist. Your writing will have voice even if you’re writing a technical manual.

Sometimes described as a combination of style, tone, and personality, in simpler terms, voice is the how of writing. It’s not what you say or who you say it about; it’s how you say it.

In a profession where an hour can be spent fussing over the placement of a period, it’s understandable that broader elements of writing like voice get fuzzy. It’s like looking at a photograph pressed against your nose. It’s right there—but you can’t see it.

Step back. Way back. Voice is not exclusive to writing. An example: I have before me two images, an Ansel Adams photograph and a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. I’m not going to tell you more; I don’t have to. Even if you’re only slightly familiar with these artists, you immediately pictured something. Though both lived in the western United States in the same era and portrayed similar subjects, each artist had a distinctive look. One of Adams’s monochromatic photographs would never be confused with one of O’Keeffe’s colorful abstractions, even if both subjects were the same.

That look is voice.

Everyone has a voice. Voice isn’t something to be found; it’s not lost. And unlike grammar and plotting, it’s not something that needs to be learned. Let’s dispel the myth of “finding your voice”; it’s a misconception. You don’t need to find it; you need to recognize it.

You’d think you’d know what you sound like, but in practice it’s much easier to spot another writer’s voice than your own. Much like speaking voices, really: you can recognize and describe the voices of your friends, family, and co-workers, but what about your own? Ever heard a recording of your own voice?

Ah. You see the problem.

Dig out some of your own unpolished, not-meant-for-publication writing—journal entries are best, but letters or emails will work. Try to find something old, preferably composed before you started writing seriously. Spend some time reading and absorbing your voice—and make a note to yourself when something clicks. Read the “now that sounds like me” sections aloud.

Now pick up something you’ve been working on recently—maybe something that’s been frustrating you—and read it over. Do you hear your voice—or someone else’s? When you find an awkward section, something that sounds wrong, read it aloud. Compare it to the other piece, the one you know sounds like you. Try to pin down what’s different. Have you used big words when normally you use small ones? Are you using dialect you’re not familiar with? Maybe you’re trying to be poetic, when your natural voice is spare.

When you start writing, it’s natural to imitate the voices of your favorite writers or writers you’ve recently read, much like your speaking voice picks up local accents and expressions when you travel. In fact, the better your ear for the sound of good writing, the more likely this is to happen. But if you know your own voice, you’ll recognize what you’re doing and slip back without fuss, just as you effortlessly return to your regular speaking voice when you come home from a trip. Mimicking another writer’s voice is a fun exercise, but in the long term it’s too damn hard. If writing has become arduous and you can’t figure out why—check your voice.

But don’t feel that you have to lose every trick you’ve picked up from other writers. Just as a lifetime of experiences influences your speaking vocabulary and pronunciation, what you read affects your writing. Keep what feels right; techniques culled from a variety of sources will only make your voice more decisively you.

The more you write, the more aware you’ll be of your own voice. Other writers will still influence you, but they won’t have the profound effect they did in the beginning.

Compare a story that’s at least a year old with a recent one. If your writing is progressing, the newer piece will sound more like you. Not sure? Listen to your readers. A definitive sign that your writing has a recognizable sound is a reader saying, “That’s so you.” Sounds obvious, but such comments are often brushed aside as unimportant. When this happens, make a note of it. It’ll give you a touchstone to refer to when your voice falters.

Because even when you know your own voice, it can be a challenge to stay true to it. Why? Well, one of the first things you probably did when you started writing was seek out other writers. Perhaps you took a class or joined a critique group. And while classes and critique groups are great for mastering the basics—things like good grammar, a consistent viewpoint, a plot that makes sense—they’re terrible for developing voice.

Think about it: grammar, viewpoint, and plot are objective elements. For example, “should of” is wrong. Period. If you’re writing in third person, you can’t start saying “I did this and that” halfway through the story. If a character dies (really dies) in Chapter Two, they can’t be seen ordering a cappuccino in Chapter Nine.

Objective elements like these receive consistent feedback. Everyone will notice your dead character drinking coffee and point it out. But voice is subjective. The more unusual your voice, the more likely it is that ten different critiquers will have ten different opinions about how you should tell your story. If you’re a good little writer, your instinct will be to try to accommodate all of them. Resist.

Trust yourself. Listening to multiple opinions will only muddle your voice. The purpose of editing is to polish and clear up discrepancies, not to please others. Say what you think and feel, not what you think someone else wants to hear. Keep reminding yourself why you’re writing. What do you want your oeuvre—body of work—to say about you at the end of your life?

If you know why you’re writing, you’ll stay focused on how you’re going to say it—even in the face of opposition from your best writing buddies—and your voice will be sure and true.

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