Guest Author Anna Banks: Finding Your Writing Voice
It’s said that everything about writing can be taught — grammar, dialogue mechanics, show vs. tell — except voice. They say that voice has to come naturally, that it’s not something any editor or teacher can impart to you, that without proper voice, your words will fall flat as the page and seem as forced as the binding that holds all those pages together.
But here’s a secret: Your voice is you. Yep, you. And if your voice is you, that means it can be improved, just like any other aspect of you. You want to lose weight? Go on a diet. You want to learn to speak Chinese? Start studying. You want to get rid of acne? Stop touching your face, moron.
Oh, but you want to cultivate your writing voice, don’t you? Put it to real life use:
1.) Monitor how you speak and communicate with others. Do you speak with confidence and authority? Or are you shy, perhaps even boring, when communicating verbally? Many times, the way you communicate with those around you indicates how you will communicate with the written word. So next time you think you’re not getting your point across, or the recipient of your conversation appears bored, you’re letting your voice fall to the wayside, and squandering a good chance at practicing to make it better.
For instance, if someone asks you how your dinner was, your response, if it was okay, may be, “It was fine.” B-O-R-I-N-G way to answer a boring question. Now, try adding a little voice to your response. Try to illicit a reaction from your inquirer. Say, “Dinner? Oh, I guess it’ll make a turd.”
Both ways communicate that dinner was just okay, but the second way is far more interesting to hear, wouldn’t you agree? Practice cultivating your voice in every day conversation. Try to interest people, not with what you say, but how you say it.
2.) If you’re not that sharp with voice straight out of the writing corral, go ahead and finish your first (boring) draft and then go back and edit it strictly for voice. Yes, make this an actual step in your editing process. Make it a point to target sentences and phrases and ask yourself how you could add voice to them. Get rid of clichés and coin new phrases to say the same thing. Instead of saying, “He opened his wallet and his money spilled out onto the counter,” say this, “He disemboweled his wallet onto the counter.”
This step of editing also means going through the manuscript and distinguishing each character’s voice from the others. It’s all well and good to have a strong, authoritative voice, but if ALL your characters sound like that, you have still failed. Great, you’ve found YOUR voice, (which usually translates to the main character’s voice) but all of your other characters have voices too. Or at least, they should.
3.) Remember, voice is nothing without rhythm. To see if your voice and rhythm are playing well together, read your manuscript aloud. Yep, another step in the editing process, but one well worth your time. Let’s go back to our previous example. “He disemboweled his wallet onto the counter.” It still has more voice than its predecessor, but something is still missing here when you read it aloud. The sentence is just too simple, and abrupt. You need more flow, more rhythm to get it just right: “He disemboweled his wallet onto the counter, allowing the entrails to fall in a lump of rubber-banded bills before us all.”
If all of this seems overwhelming, take heart. Even writers with the strongest or most distinctive voices didn’t get them overnight. I always use Michael Jordan as an example for this. He was, and still is, ahem, the greatest basketball player of all time. But guess what? He didn’t make the high school basketball team. When he first started out, he loved the game and knew the rules, but wasn’t very good at it. And what did he do? He practiced. Every. Single. Day. He practiced until basketball was second nature to him, until it was such a part of him that he made it look effortless.
That’s how you should feel about your writing voice.