Many full-time creative writers came to their calling through the wormhole of journalism. In their former professions, they were expected to do exactly two things: report facts, and remove themselves, their nuances and their unconscious biases from the writing. Other writers, like me, came to the creative side from the corporate communications world, and are similarly accustomed to doing only two things: articulating the company message, and doing it in the company’s voice.
No deviation from these norms is permitted, unless you’re an editorialist. Or the CEO.
As a result, there’s a lot of hiding going on among creative writers, especially those newer to the craft (again, like me).
What’s a Writing Voice, Exactly?
Have you ever thought about the way your voice sounds when you answer the phone? I have a friend who picks up every phone call, even from numbers he recognizes, as though the caller is a telemarketer ringing during dinner hour. His “hel-LO?” is gravelly, vaguely hostile and certainly… unique.
A writer’s voice is like that. It’s the signature way you knit words together. It’s how you talk, but black and white and on paper. It’s your love of long lists, how you always repeat vowel sounds but not consonants, how you show the world to your readers (using sounds? Smells? Personal anecdotes?), and other, less tangible things. All writing has a sound, and yours just sounds like you.
An authentic writing voice is also a desirable quality to editors. Writer’s Digest quotes literary agent Donald Maass, who says, “‘I am looking for authors with a distinctive voice.’ I hear that from editors over lunch almost as often as I hear, ‘I am looking for big, well-written thrillers.'”
How to Free Your Authentic Writing Voice
Forget the rules.
Now, that sounds pretty hokey, but hear me out. For the longest time, I was militant about refusing to end sentences with prepositions. That might sound trivial, but it was representative of a larger problem, and something all writers have to deal with eventually: internal prescriptivism.
Following the rules of grammar are important to ensure your readers comprehend what you’re trying to say. No mixing up your its/it’s, your their/there/they’re, and so forth. But what about the things that aren’t really rules, like “Don’t end your sentences with a preposition”?
I once had a writing teacher who would dock students half a grade letter every time they began a sentence with the words “And” or “Because.”
And let’s not neglect the pitchfork-wielding crowd that appears during every debate about whether semicolons are too hifalutin for regular readers, the written equivalent of the raised tea pinky.
Many great writers have a signature way of breaking these “rules,” and if you’re comfortable starting sentences with “because,” “and,” “but,” or even “so,” rock on with your bad self.
Save the phrases and constructions that make you happy.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of using parentheses to vary the tone of a sentence. I also like to link concepts together without the word “and” where you’d normally expect it to be (example: “…whether semicolons are too hifalutin for regular readers, the written equivalent of the raised tea pinky“). As a result of too much time spent on the Internet, I’ve taken to indulging punchy, conversational sentence fragments from time to time.
These are some of the phrases I’ve saved into a mental swipe file that I deploy to when writing. What about you? To start a mental swipe file, create a physical one, and jot down a phrase or two to remind yourself of the styles you enjoy seeing and using in print. Out of many blended elements, you might just end up creating something entirely new.
And when that happens, this new style tends to define you as a writer (until you evolve again, of course).
Write like you speak. (Just don’t use the word “like,” like I do in spoken life.)
It’s a myth that writers don’t speak well. You may not relish public speaking, but when you talk, you should listen.
I overuse parenthetical asides not only in writing, but in speech as well. I indicate an aside with a change in tone of voice or gesture, and while I’m sure it annoys some of my readers and a few of the people I speak to, it tends to serve me well in being understood. It’s my own personal subject hierarchy.
What about you? Have you ever tried to incorporate your natural accent into the way your characters speak, Huckleberry Finn-style? Try it! Dialectic variations give an unmistakeable color and texture to your writing, and makes your characters more memorable than if they all had that clipped, precise, news-anchorish tone.
Above All, Experiment
Hindsight is 20/20. When you experiment in the early draft stages, you can always edit later. Just don’t let fears of making a stylistic mistake, nattering teacher-voices or the style police get in your way.
The Delete button is your friend (in the editing process).
How have you adapted your writing voice over time? Have you ever had a teacher that hated the word “because”? Share your experience in the comments!