A lot of new writers get confused by the word ‘voice’ when it’s used to help them with their writing. They read, or get told, ‘You must discover your voice’ as though it’s a lost set of car keys or a secret road map that’ll magically lead to publication. I actually think ‘voice’ is a very misleading word. For a start it’s a word that has to do with sound, while writing is about words that start in your head and end up on a page and are rarely, if ever, heard by the ear. You can, to an extent, hear a writer’s voice if you read their work out loud, and that can be a useful exercise, but since most books are read silently perhaps it’s not the most illuminating word to use when talking about the craft of writing. Still, as it’s currently part of the writer’s lexicon I’ll try to explain how I understand it.
Every writer has a voice. It’s not something you need to go looking for, any more than a singer has to go looking for theirs. They open their mouth, start singing, and bingo! There’s their voice. For writers, it’s revealed the moment they put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and start writing, be it dialogue or description. In writing, you might say the voice is the way an individual chooses to express him or herself. The words that are chosen and the order in which they’re put on the page.
Put five people in a room and ask them to write a description of the same vase of flowers, and you’ll end up with five completely different word pictures. One person will see the flowers in terms of their shape and colour, one will discuss the symbolism of flowers in general, another will focus on the way they fill the vase, while another will notice the fragrance and somebody else will describe how they’re allergic to flowers and come out in hives. Some of these descriptions will be sparse, functional, others will be ornate and flowery (no pun intended) with lots of adverbs and adjectives. Some will focus on the intellectual, others the emotional. In other words, what you’ll get is five different ‘voices’, all talking about the same subject.
That’s what voice is. The unique and intimate connection between the writer and the subject being written about. Which means you, the writer, don’t need to go looking for it anywhere, because it’s already in you. Part of you. Voice is the instinctive way in which you relate to the world, the way you see it and are driven to describe it.
Is there such a thing as a ‘right’ voice? No. There are just different voices. Compare Reginald Hill to Elizabeth George, for example. You couldn’t get two more different authorial voices if you tried, even though they’re both working in the crime fiction genre. But one isn’t better than the other, any more than classical music is better than jazz. In the end it comes down to personal taste and preference. Instead of worrying about whether you have the ‘right’ voice, concentrate on learning to recognize your own voice so you can spend your energy making it the best ‘your voice’ you can produce.
Too many people focus their energies outwards, trying to emulate the writing voices of existing, successful and popular authors. This is a mistake, because it stops them being their own authentic selves in their writing. Instead of being themselves when they write they’re trying to be Stephen King or Robert Jordan or Ursula LeGuin. Stop criticizing yourself, or judging your work using other people’s styles as a yardstick, or trying to write with their voice. Relax and focus on the way you see the world, the way you are moved to put words on paper. Let your instincts guide you. Once you’re done you can step back from the work and let it show you your voice.
At that point, you may decide that it’s a bit out of tune, or repetitive, or lacking in clarity. That’s fine, you can train it to be more authentically you, or work to make it more polished and pleasing to the ear. That’s what rewriting is about. But the most important thing is that you are you. That you block out all the other voices and listen only to your own. That’s why many writers won’t read fiction when they’re working on their own stories. Other people’s writing voices can get in the way and throw them off-key.
Just remember that you don’t have to find your voice, it’s in you already. All you have to do is learn to recognise it. To trust yourself and let it sing, expressing your thoughts and feelings and vision of the world in a way that is uniquely yours, belonging to nobody else. That’s what editors and readers are looking for. A great story told with truth and passion that they haven’t read before … because you, the real you, have never told it before.