Voice on the page – it’s what agents, publishers, and readers all want. But what is it?
Voice is difficult to define, yet you recognize it when you “hear” it. It’s a way of writing that is unique, like a fingerprint. As a fiction writer, you give your characters individual voices, yet you, the author, have an underlying voice of your own. Word choice, syntax, and what you choose to reveal, all make for a resonate and distinct sound on the page. Lively, individual writing — now that’s Voice.
A manuscript can be technically well-written, with interesting characters and a thrilling plot, but still reads flat. A computer might have written it; it has no voice. Another manuscript can be filled with mistakes and not ready for publication, but sounds much more alive. So alive it nearly jumps off the page. Which one do you want to read?
It generally takes years of writing to develop your own voice. Don’t worry about identifying or deconstructing it, just write from the heart. Get the story down the way it wants to come out. Don’t be afraid to write poorly. What you’re trying to do in the first draft is capture the heart of the thing. The soul. Write like only you can.
Of course you’ll have to revise it, and more than once. But don’t edit the heart out of it. This can happen if you over workshop your story and listen to too many self-proclaimed writing experts who have read all the books and know all the “rules” about creative writing. (That’s bullshit. Rules are meant to be broken, and all writing rules have successfully been broken!) Fellow writers and beta readers are most helpful NOT when they’re telling you HOW to write, but when they tell you what parts, what paragraphs, they liked best. An immediate, gut-level feedback. Those are the parts that have heart and voice. Write more of those kind of paragraphs!
During the revision process you’ll surely need to do some rewriting. You might need to clarify. Or prune dry words that are sapping the strength of your story. You might need to rake up and dispose of piles of information, dumped like dead leaves. But while revising it’s important to listen for your own voice — your own way of telling a story — and trust it. Whose story is this anyway?
There are some techniques to develop your voice:
As Peter Elbow says in Writing with Power; Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, “A sentence should be alive. Does it sag in the middle or trail off at the end? Is it fog or mush? Sentences need energy to make the meaning jump off the page into the reader’s head… Stop beating around the bush. Stop Explaining things or talking in ‘essay’ or translating what you have on your mid into ‘writing’ language; just say it!” (pg. 135)
Have a few trusted critics read a section of your work and circle paragraphs or sentences that grab them, that come alive, for whatever reason. Now look at them yourself, read them aloud. Can you hear your own voice coming through? Now re-read some of your own work, listening for those parts that are so true, that feel natural, and are clear. Write more of them!
Be bold. Send your inner critic on vacation for the first drafts. Write from the heart to capture the soul of the story. Revise wisely. Don’t throw away the sweet inner meat of the coconut with the husk.