Writing Wednesday: Voice

Writing Wednesday

And Writing Wednesdays are back! A little change-up is happening around here, namely that Writing Wednesdays are moving to every other week. This week’s topic: Voice.

Hope everyone’s holidays have gone well. Mine has left me feeling rather recharged (thankfully), and now I am once again ready to tackle some common writing troubleshooting questions. This month I’ve chosen to focus on the actual craft of writing itself, starting with the question of voice.

Back when I was an editor, I looked for two things in a potential project: and interesting premise and an engaging voice. In the best possible scenario, a project would come in with both (well-executed), but one or the other was necessary for me to try and bring it past acquisitions. A manuscript can have a fantastic, commercial hook with utilitarian writing, or a commonplace idea with an incredibly distinct voice, but you cannot have a commonplace idea with merely serviceable writing.

Sounds self-explanatory, but a lot of people come up short on the voice part. Why? To be honest, in my own personal hierarchy of importance, voice is less important than premise. I can forgive a lot if the plot is compelling enough.1 In fact, in a highly commercial work, I often prefer that the writing be invisible. What do I mean by invisible? I mean that it gets me from scene to scene without calling attention to itself, either good or bad. The grammar is serviceable, the meaning clear (if not perfect), the description is functional, etc.

But when it comes to voice…well, that’s harder to pinpoint. Simply defined, a writer’s voice is a writer’s style. Style is unique to an individual (or should be), and it’s something that develops over time. Like fashion, some people have an innate knack for voice; others have to work at it.

For me, voice is comprised of three things:

  1. Diction
  2. Rhythm
  3. A distinct je ne sais quoi (one might say “aesthetic”)

Diction is easy; simply put, it means word choice. The difference between once upon a time and once there was, for example. It may sound nitpicky, but diction often comes down these minute and minuscule decisions in prose. Those who reach for the different, the unusual, or the profound stand out.

Rhythm is also easy; the length of the sentences, the words, the consonance, assonance, alliteration. Repetition, variation, elaboration. My own rhythms tend to come in threes (a magic number, a fairy tale number), with lots of internal rhyme and alliteration. Hemingway was much more stark; his writing is nearly elegant in its spareness. Rhythm is probably the most natural of the three components of voice for me.

The last is more difficult. After all, what is je ne sais quoi but a French phrase to fill an English lexical gap? But there must be a certain indescribable quality that is distinct and unique to the individual writer. Diction, rhythm, syntax, dialogue, how character develops, all these are but threads in a larger stylistic tapestry that creates a work of art.

All right, so we have the components of voice, but how does one develop it? The same way you develop any kind of style—artistic, fashion, writing—through inspiration and through practiceRead a lot for inspiration. Read writers with distinct voices. Practice writing. Affect their style. Write fanfiction.2 Those of us with the most assured voices have practiced most.

A large part of style is courage. How many times have you heard “Oh, I can’t possibly pull off that article of clothing”? Fashion, like writing, is knowing what you like and having the balls to wear it. The intersection between art and craft is a razor-fine line in any creative field. For some, the balance is tipped more toward art; for others, craft guides their writing. One is not better than the other; in fact, I would say that craft outweighs talent in nearly every art form.

There you have it! That’s my introduction to voice. Next time, we will delve a little bit further into the vagaries of prose.

  1. Case in point: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
  2. I used to write a lot of Jane Austen fanfiction when I was in high school to affect that wry, arch tone. Pastiche is a great way to learn.
1 Response
  1. I took on this topic for the same reason you address it here: the presence of voice can seduce me into ignoring or forgiving a lot of sins. My post, “Why I Quit Reading Your Book” (https://justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/why-i-quit-reading-your-book/) struggles as most of us do with defining voice. I agree with the three points, and with the difficulty in overcoming the intangibility of the third. And I like the recommendation to read and read and read and imitate! I pointed to the rhetorical concept of “imitatio” in my post. Thanks!

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