Cultivating Your Writing Voice

At Jess West’s behest, I’ve written this article on what ‘voice’ is in writing, why it’s important, and how writers can cultivate it. Jess has written a post on the same subject, though we both tackled the issue from very different perspectives. Please check hers out as well. You can find it here.

At its most basic, writing is simply a combination of symbols that, together, evoke images, forms, or ideas. We think of pictographs or cuneiform as writing at its simplest – symbols that represent images which, together, take on more complex meanings. But at its most sophisticated, the act of writing becomes more than just a depiction of static forms. Through words, we tell stories, paint pictures, describe cultures, and create new worlds.

By stringing words together to make sentences, writers create their own distinctive and identifiable style of narration. This is called “voice”. It’s basically a different way of saying “style”, one that’s more particular to writing than the other arts (with the exception of music, obviously).

Here’s an example.

Robert Jordan saw them there on the slope, close to him now, and below he saw the road and the bridge and the long lines of vehicles below it. He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything. Then he looked up at the sky. There were big white clouds in it. He touched the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay and he touched the bark of the pine trunk that he lay behind.

That’s Ernest Hemingway, from For Whom The Bell Tolls. You can tell, if you’ve read any of his works, that it’s his, just by the way he doesn’t use any commas, how he lists things somewhat repetitively, and how he lays these actions out so bare and raw without any adverb or emotion.

Here’s another.

In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.

That’s Cormac McCarthy, from The Road. McCarthy draws some influence from Hemingway, and you can see it in the taut, terse quality of his writing. But he’s more expansive than Hemingway is – he takes more liberty with his vocabulary (“pilgrims” “flowstone” “granitic”) and though his sentences are still tight, they’re more fluid, less constraining.

By contrast, here’s a writer who’s almost defiantly self-indulgent when it comes to his words:

Starting with the mysterious and continuing fall of acoustic ceiling-tiles from their places in the subdorms’ drop rooms, inanimate objects have either been moved into or just out of nowhere appearing in wildly inappropriate places around [Enfield Tennis Academy] for the past couple months in a steadily accelerating and troubling cycle. Last week a grounds-crew lawnmower sitting silent and clean and somehow menacing in the middle of the dawn kitchen gave Ms. Clarke the fantods and resulted in Eggplant Parmesan for two suppers in a row, which sent shock waves.

This is the exuberantly verbose David Foster Wallace, from Infinite Jest. Note the way he writes casually and not always properly (“for the past couple months” instead of “couple of months” and “fantods”) and uses far more words than he really needs (“wildly innapropriate” “steadily accelerating and troubling” “silent and clean and somehow menacing”). In this case, the hyperbole makes the passage funnier, and contributes to the absurdism he’s trying to pass off as realism.

All three of these writers’ voices are so distinctive it would almost be possible to tell them apart in a sort of blind literary tasting. Give a long-time reader or a literary critic a passage from each of these writers and ask her to identify which writer authored which passage, and I have little doubt she’d be able to hit the mark all three times. Their voice are strong, unique, and charismatic. We want to follow the path they’ve written out for us.

So how is an aspiring writer to set about developing a voice of his own?

As I see it, developing your own writing voice is a bit like growing a garden.

First, you have to have strong, rich, healthy soil. This is the foundation upon which your voice is built. The soil is the organic matter you’ll till into your own distinctive sound. The soil is books – books by other authors, authors you respect and admire, whose writing styles you wish to emulate and capture. It doesn’t have to be just one person – in fact, it’s far, far better if it’s not just one writer. By synthesizing the sounds and words from many different writers, playwrights, poets, or screenwriters, you’ll be able to create a more innovative and distinct style of your own. If you try too hard to imitate just one person, you’ll end up sounding both unoriginal and dull – after all, the style you’re working so hard to perfect has already been perfected. Just as compost doesn’t work if you only feed it tomatoes, so your voice will wither if you only feed it Faulkner.

Then, you have to have hearty, diverse seeds. These are your own works. You have to invest in lots of them – from the very big to the very small – in order to make your voice strong universally. You should experiment with all sorts of different forms of writing, from flash fiction to poetry to novellas to one-act plays. These are your seeds, and as you plant them and begin to write them, you’ll learn how to turn all those works you’ve read into a strong and distinctive voice.

And of course, you have to sow your seeds, train your plants, water them, and weed, before you can harvest the fruits of your labor. This is work. This, as you might expect, is the hard part. In order to cultivate your voice, you have to write, and you have to write a lot. Those short stories, poems, plays, and novellas you started out with? You have to finish them. You have to revisit them and critique them and ask yourself how can this be better? before you can begin to harvest anything from your garden. You have to write. A lot.

There are some people, I suspect, who were born with words springing from their fingertips like Athena sprung from Zeus’ forehead. I might hazard that F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of these people, whose first novel was published at the tender young age of twenty-four. Or Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was published when she was merely twenty years old. The aforementioned David Foster Wallace had his first novel, The Broom Of The System, published when he was twenty-five. There are others, I’m sure, who meet the same criteria. But for the rest of us mortals, cultivating our voice(s) is a more arduous process. It demands work, careful attention, and patience, much as does tending to our gardens.

It’s not easy. But the reward, I guarantee you, is worth the struggle. So go, till your garden, turn your compost, plant your seeds, and grow your voice. I’ll be working right alongside you.