Craft

A Writer’s “Voice”

A couple months ago I asked some of my clients if there are terms they hear in writing and publishing that they wish someone would clearly and conclusively define. One said this: “Professionals say, ‘Find your voice,’ ‘Trust your voice,’ ‘Embrace your voice.’ I can recognize another writer’s voice, but I can’t for the life of me describe mine. Is ‘your voice’ something someone else has to describe because it’s too hard to be objective about our own writing?”

Heck, I dunno.

See, that’s my voice. Coming through. Right there on your screen. You’re welcome.

Okay, okay, I’ll try to be more helpful than that. But it won’t be easy. Because “voice” is much misunderstood in writing circles. A writer once objected to my coaching, saying, “That’s my voice! That’s how I write!” I did my best to explain that, no, voice is not cluelessness, laziness, or lack of skill. I was a little gentler than that, of course. Probably too gentle because I don’t think he caught on.

“Voice” isn’t style or technique (or the lack of such things). It’s not how you punctuate or don’t punctuate. It has little to do with spelling or the rules of grammar.

It’s you. It’s your personality, your passions, your sense of humor, your modus operandi all rolled into one. It’s how you think, feel, and see the world coming through in writing. It’s what happens when you feel most at home in your own skin, free to express what’s in your heart, mind, and soul. It’s when you stop posturing, performing, or imitating, and the “youness” that is you comes through on a page.

Still not clear? Wondering how in the world you’re supposed to “find your voice” when you’re already you? Shouldn’t it just happen?

Well, no. But there are a few ways I can think of to help you “find” or “free” your voice:

  • Relax.

Stop trying. Don’t try to write like “a writer.” Don’t force yourself to sound a certain way. As the philosopher Dave Mason once sang, “Let it go, let it go, let it flow like a river; Let it go, let it go, let it flow through you.” (You may be too young to hear the tune, so look it up if you need to).

  • Write a lot.

Finding or freeing your “voice” involves—for most people—overcoming the writing habits of grade school or grad school, of the pulpit or the prison. For example, in my experience, academics have a really tough time finding their voice because they were required for so long to suppress their own voices in writing theses and dissertations, all of which has to be unlearned before they can “write like themselves” again. The more you write—as you, not someone else—the more that’s likely to happen.  

  • Master the elements of good writing.

Finding your voice doesn’t mean you can ignore the rules of good writing or eschew critique and editing. In fact, as you improve in those areas, you’ll find your voice because you’ll become freer to be yourself in words, sentences, and pages.

  • Review and reflect.

As you’re writing and when you finish a piece of writing (an article, say, or a chapter), take some time to review and reflect on what you’ve written. Did you feel “at home in your own skin” as you wrote? Did you feel like yourself? Read it aloud; does it sound like you (not necessarily how you talk, but your personality, passions, perspectives—and even words that don’t alliterate)? Or does it sound like someone else? Were you putting on airs? Posturing? Preaching? Performing? Imitating? Ask someone who knows you well to read it and answer those questions. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • Keep writing. A lot.

Your voice can’t be forced. It’s found and freed as you write, the more you write … and write and write and write. As you become not only better but more “you” as a writer, your voice will emerge. And it will feel suhweet.

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Diligence Is Rewarded

by Steve Laube

The ease of today’s social media communication brings a casual layer to the task of writing. Careful composition is trumped by the need for speed. For most “throw away” emails and posts that is the new normal. But it should never leak into the business of writing, either in craft or in delicate communication.

The other day I received an email query/proposal. There was a very large file attached and the body of the email read, “Here is my book. Please take a look.” No signature line, that was it. At least it rhymed. This was not a friend, a client, or someone I had ever met. But the casual, even flippant, nature of the note all but says, “I’m not serious about the craft or business of writing.”

The best writers are those who take their ideas and their words and run them through a gauntlet of critique and reformation. They pour their words into a garlic press and slice and dice them into bits that can flavor their entire book.

This takes time. This takes hard work. And it is a process that seems endless.

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Happy Laborious Day

Today, in the U.S., is a national holiday called Labor Day. The holiday is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being …

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Should You Write Short Stories First?

The “Your Questions Answered” Series __________ What are your thoughts on writing some short stories before you jump into your first novel? I don’t recommend writing short stories before jumping into your first novel IF your goal is to be a novelist. Writing where you don’t want your success to …

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What I Learned from Editors

I’ve been writing for publication since my teen years, when the world was young and the Garden of Eden’s discount fruit stand was still in business. As you might imagine, I’ve worked with more than a few editors over the years (and even been an editor myself). Though some writers …

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Realistic Language in Fiction

The “Your Questions Answered” Series __________ I’m a former crime reporter and trauma survivor with lots of counseling writing a suspense novel. I’m trying to balance Christian fiction guidelines with the speech and behavior I’ve seen in police stations and at crime scenes. I’ve come up with some of my …

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Show Versus Tell – HELP!

The “Your Questions Answered” Series __________ Could you write about the difference between showing and telling? I am constantly mixing them up. Thanks! Telling is like giving readers a grocery list. They must memorize facts to absorb your story. For example: She never stood out in a crowd, any crowd. …

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What’s in a Name?

Years ago I was reading a book by Louis L’Amour, a favorite author of mine. I don’t remember which book it was (I haven’t yet read them all, but I’ve read many of them), but I do recall being confused throughout. Why? I’m so glad you asked. Because three of …

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He Said. She Said.

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

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