January 20, 2011

Look who’s talking: Finding a voice

Voice. It’s a term we’ve all heard in reference to written works, and one we think we understand. Yet, it is a hard concept to explain, much less help a writer achieve. If we think that a manuscript we’re editing lacks a distinctive voice, what do we tell the writer? Go find one?
Whole books have been written about voice. For example, there’s The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda; The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice, by Laraine Herring; and Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice, by Linda Trichter. And that’s just a sampling.
But I’m going to pick on another book—one in which voice is only one chapter. It’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is a book that’s probably familiar to more of you than some of the others I’ve talked about. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers seems to be quite a popular choice among editors, and for good reason. It contains good, straightforward explanations, and it also provides ways that writers can work on overcoming their difficulties.
“A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want—and something no editor or teacher can impart,” Browne and King say. “There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself.”
They go on to say that voice is not the same as style: “If you think about it, you can see that every writer has or can have a literary style, but by no means does every writer have a literary voice.”
So how do you get one? The answer lies in the authors’ first statement, that having a voice means “writing like yourself.” Therefore, you develop one by reading your own work and looking for what is authentically you. Browne and King describe an exercise to help the writer do this. They suggest reading a short story, scene or chapter as if for the first time, then marking each passage that gives “a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say, ‘Ah yes, that sings’…” Then you read the same section, this time marking “those passages that make you wince or that seem to fall flat.”
After doing the first assignment, the writer is told to read all these fine passages, one after another. Reading them, the authors say, will help the writer become conscious of what is most effective about his or her work, and this will help strengthen it.
In the same way, the writer is told to read all the ineffective passages, but this time, he or she is to figure out what’s wrong with each passage and fix it. If it’s too vague, make it specific; if it’s obvious, look for explanations that can be cut; if it’s flat, notice if all the sentences have the same structure and if so, vary them, and so forth.
“If you do this exercise often enough, you will develop a sensitivity to your own voice that will gently encourage the development of the confidence and distinction you’re after,” Browne and King say.
This is wonderful advice, I think, and it’s really helpful to an editor with a voiceless manuscript on her hands. While you have to give the writer bad news about what’s missing, you can also say that what he or she needs to do is make the thing sound more like his or her own, and who doesn’t want to do that? Moreover, you can give the writer a concrete way to to accomplish this feat that can seem so daunting. True, this isn’t an exercise that will produce immediate results, but it is eminently doable, and even provides some ego boost. Imagine, finding out that something you wrote actually sings! That has to be a happy discovery for any writer.


  1. I've referred many writers to SEFW -- but I think most frequently to Chapter 10 "Once Is Usually Enough" and also sometimes to remind writers about basics of scene/summary and POV. I don't think I've ever referenced the chapter on voice: this is great reminder to reread and remember that section, and great suggestion on how to use it.

    I'm also interested in something else you said: "this isn't an exercise that will produce immediate results." Do you have any wisdom nuggets about communicating with an author who's anxious to be "finished"? So many of the clients I've worked with love the writing process, but also very much want to see the current mss as almost ready, almost done, almost perfect. They might request a short timeline for editing so they can get on with a proposed schedule for clean-up and publication. I want to work with what motivates the writer ... but my guess about how much more the writer will be working on the mss is often different from what they're thinking.

    Item 5 in editor A. Victoria Mixon's post here (http://writetodone.com/2011/01/11/the-7-secrets-of-an-indie-editor/) points to this same conundrum.

    Any thoughts on how to weave in the editor's perspective on time with a writer who is wishing to be finished sooner?

  2. I like this exercise for authors, Nancy. I wonder about having prose writers read their own work aloud as well. Poets make a habit of it and it can help a writer with rhythm and meaning.