Developing Your Writing Voice — Part 1
Learning about the qualities in your own writing style.
Many new writers spend a lot of time worrying about how good their ideas are and whether people will want to read them. The race for originality is ongoing as so many people dream of tapping into that little niche that no-one else has yet discovered.
And getting rich and famous for doing so!
In reality, it is extremely difficult to come up with something that is truly original in the sense of it having never been done or discovered before. As with music, as much as we may feel that there are infinite possibilities, there really aren’t. As soon as a musician has full grasped the basics of melody and harmony, learnt what does and does not work, they start to adhere to conventions or rules — which is a dangerous word in creativity — that allow the work to be most accessible to most people.
Writing comes from reading
One of the tips that writers with experience will shout in chorus of agreement is that in order to be a good writer you must first be a reader. It might seem obvious to say it, and indeed it should be, because the two are absolutely linked. However, simply sitting on a beautifully constructed chair does not make you a carpenter and more than enjoying great food makes you a leading chef. Writing is a craft, a skill, and it is hard work. Despite what people say and believe, not everyone will have the skills required to write good and successful work, any more than everyone who tries to play a violin being good enough to play for a symphony orchestra.
The more you read, the more language you absorb. Not just in volume, but in quality and variety. Pick up a Terry Pratchett Disk World novel and you have in your hand a fantastically drawn fiction of fantasy, character, mystery and imagination. Above all, you can hear an incredibly dry wit on every page. Put that book down and pick up a Stephen King — the master of horror and thriller. Some how he captures our worst fears and squashes them onto paper for us all the enjoy. And what about Roald Dahl? His stories bounce with childlike energy and celebrate the imagination of the young, using their little confusions with the big world and turning them into adventures. Each one is rich with language and narrative, excitement and more — but at their core, they are remarkably simple stories.
The wider we read, both in genre and in style, the more voices we hear. Even think about the word “author” for a moment. The word come from the Latin root auctor, meaning “founder, master, leader”, even “enlarger.” This sense of a creator of something. There’s even a loose link to “authentic” — a word we romanticise a lot about in modern society, and indeed place great value on. Someone who speaks with “authority” is one we can be confident knows their subject well. Or indeed they hold a position that has been earned. When it comes to writing, it’s all about creating something that commands attention.
Finding your own qualities — something to try…
When you’re first trying to find your voice, don’t make the mistake of presuming that you must write in the first person. Try lots of small tasks and really listen to how you write. Analyse it.
For example, set yourself a simple task. A character opens the door of an old haunted house. Don’t think to much about it, just thrash out a hundred words or so. Then, without reading it back, start a new task where a character opens the office door on the first day of a new job. Thrash out a hundred words or so, again without reading back. Finally, pick a third scenario, such as opening the door to enter a doctor’s surgery, an expensive hotel room, or anything else.
Then read all three short pieces them. Don’t look for the differences — that’s too obvious and too easy. Look for the similarities. How much description do you use? What is your sentence structure like? What is your tone? Do you focus on minute details, or sweeping glances around with just minor clues for the reader? Do you use rhetoric or keep asking questions, like I do?
Now that you’ve had a go at that, you might only have found a few similarities, maybe even just one. Let’s say you discovered that you keep writing what the character is thinking, or that you like to use really short, abrupt sentences. Return to your three pieces of writing, and write the next hundred words or so, but emphasise this one main quality. Make a real effort to use it a few more times.
After you’ve tried that, read all three mini-stories again — each being around two hundred words long by now — and pick which one you feel is the strongest so far. There’s no right or wrong, put as little thought into it as possible. Pick the one which inspires the next hundred words the most. And then write those hundred words, again, using that quality you identified as much as you can. Try not to worry about if this mini-story is any good or going to develop into a best-selling novel…it’s just a bit of fun, for now.
When you’ve completed that, you should have one of the three stories now stretching to around three hundred words, at most. That’s about a page or so in a book. Read it carefully, but read it aloud. If possible, record yourself reading it and listen back, or get someone else to read it to you. You need to hear it. Listen to how you sound as a writer — do you like what you hear?
Learning to Redraft — fine tuning
Having read your work, and heard it, you should have cringed in places. If you didn’t, you’re not human. Listening to your own voice recorded is bad enough, but getting used to what you sound like as a writer is even more bizarre. When I first published my debut novel, I knew the story so well, I got desensitised to it. I’ve been writing for many years. But holding that first copy of my novel in my hands, opening it up and reading it — that was very odd indeed. Did I really write that book? Are those great reviews really about something I wrote? However, such final products only come from a long process of re-drafting — something I wrote about in my blog Writing the F word.
Take your mini-story of around 300 words or so, and if you haven’t typed it up yet, do so — preferably in MS Word or some other program that can give you a word count. Read through your writing and correct any grammatical mistakes or spelling errors you find. Most importantly, take out words or phrases that do not help the story at all. The loose ends. Aim to cut out the worst 10% at least (30 words or so). But do this carefully, making sure you don’t accidentally cut out too much that has you personal quality in it — don’t lose your voice, just fine tune it.
Now it’s time to listen again to the writing, hear what you have written and polished. Can you still that little voice of yours creeping through, defining the sound of this tiny story? Is that special quality still there?
Throwing your baby out of the nest
Set it free, but not too free. As I say in Writing the F Word, be careful not to rush to the word “finished”. But it is time to give your work to someone else and ask them if they could read it and suggest any changes or developments.Do’t worry at all that it isn’t a full story with characters. Don’t apologise for it being incomplete, or really short. Don’t panic that it has no ending. Just be prepared to hear you voice being bounced off someone else’s point of view.
Above all, ask your reader what stands out most about the style of your writing and if they liked that. If it is the quality you focused on, well done. If not…don’t worry — this was just one quick task for fun.
Send them to me…
If you don’t have someone else to read and edit your little work, please get in touch with me. I’d love to read these attempts at voice-finding and I am happy to give a quick bit of feedback.
End of Part 1
Now that we’ve got a little bit acquainted with the first whispers of your voice, look out for Part 2, where we’ll be digging a bit more into what kind of writing you want to do, and balancing that with what readers want to read.
Watch this space…
(It might be a good idea to follow me and this story so you don’t miss the next part.)