I had an author I’ve been working with query me as to just what it meant when we talk about the writer’s voice. She’d been doing a lot of internet reading on the subject, and not surprisingly, discovered lot of conflicting information.
At its simplest, the term “voice” means that everyone's writing needs to be different from everyone else’s. And the process of developing a narrative voice all boils down to a question of choices. Every writer makes choices --about the story they choose to tell, their topics, their choice of words, the details of character and scene; and how they begin, or end, their book. All those different choices in turn determine the collective effect their story has on the reader.
While it’s often referred to “tone” or “mood" or even “style,” your narrative always tells the reader something about your personality and the entirely unique way you see the world. That means your writing choices need to be conscious ones. The problem arises when you discover choices aren’t always made consciously, but rather are the result of idioms and idiosyncracies that have a way of creeping where they don’t belong. Readers are extraordinarily perceptive creatures. They can feel a writer hesitate, or struggle through a passage that isn’t quite there yet.
When it comes to strategies for developing a more authentic voice though, there are a few rules to follow.
First and foremost, care about what you’re writing.That may sound fatuous, but face it, if you don’t care, your audience won’t either. You may have the most brilliantly conceived dystopian horror fest ever to hit Microsoft Word, but if you’re not into that sort of thing, your readers will know. Writing is not manufacture; there’s a subtle interaction between author and reader that happens somewhere between the lines. If you’re faking it, you will be found out.
Express yourself honestly. Be yourself on the page. If everyone felt the same way about everything, we’d all tend to do and say and think the same things. But our feelings about things are what make us unique. Beginning writers very often reach for a tone or style that they believe is more “literary” than how they would normally express themselves. Some try to imitate the style of authors they admire. While there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with different styles, the key is consistency. If chapter twelve sounds like it was written by an entirely different writer than chapter two, you might be in trouble. If you want to be true, you have to start by being true to yourself.
The stronger your feelings, the better. Do your own attempts at comedy actually make you laugh? Do you actually come to tears when you kill off a character? If they do, chances are you’re in the zone required for a really authentic voice.
Be original. One can argue that there’s nothing new under the sun, but to say that something is original is simply to say that we haven’t seen it done quite this way before. There’s a difference about it that is ultimately the result of the confidence and willingness of the author to convey a sense of personality on the page. When a reader finishes a book by a favorite author, they frequently feel as though they’ve gotten to know that person. While it isn’t entirely true, that quality of intimacy is an important ingredient in developing an original and unique voice.
Match your tone to your audience. A white paper on global warming isn’t going to have the same tone as a young adult rite of passage. A romance is not a mystery. I can’t say it often enough, but the voice you choose for your writing must match not just your purpose, but your audience. They want to get to know you, so it only stands to reason you should get to know them.