Although in general when we speak we understand each other quite well, the way we speak is so personal that each of us can be said to speak a unique version of our shared language — linguists call this distinctive version an idiolect.
The same goes for writing.
No matter how hard we try to copy someone else’s style. The way we’re wired inside our heads, the experiences we undergo in our life, and who knows how many others variables, all make sure we leave our unmistakable fingerprints on our writing — always.
That is the author’s voice.
(For an illuminating read about this you can have a look at The secret life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker.)
Uniqueness and baloney
Some beginning authors in the attempt to develop a highly distinctive voice come up with some really weird stuff. They build sentences that sounds artificial to say the least. They over ornate their prose. They resort to a wide variety of peculiar words.
Avoid this kind of madness. It serves neither the author nor the readers. Really, any device that draws attention on itself and away from the story should be used only after long deliberation. As the saying goes, you should learn how to walk before you leap.
How to find your voice – some considerations
As we have seen, we are all unique, and we are also endowed with a unique writing voice. But if this is the case, how is it that so many teachers and books on creative writing keep telling beginning authors they have to find their writing voice?
The doubt is that all the fuss about how to find your voice when it comes to creative writing is simply misguided.
I mean, just like it’s useless going about asking how long should your novel be—each story is different—the same goes for how to find your voice.
In fact if your voice is the end result of the books you read and analyse, of the people you speak with, of the place where you live and on and on, then just keep reading a lot and in as many different genres as possible, keep studying the books you love the most, write constantly, every day, and ask for feedback.
You do that and you can be quite sure that your voice will gradually and naturally change—mature.
How to find your voice – an overrated quest?
The only problem is that your voice doesn’t offer you much flexibility. I mean, it might be a perfect fit to tell certain stories, but not certain others.
This is why I believe that, rather than striving to come up with a personal voice easily identifiable, serious writers should work hard to develop a wide range of different styles they can draw on.
In this way they’ll always be able to write a story in the style it requires to be told.
I repeat: for a writer, having a recognizable voice is neither a requisite nor a benefit. Not necessarily at least. What really matters is having many styles at her disposal.
After all, if a writer has a highly recognizable voice, but no ability to change her style according to the demands of the story she wants to tell, her natural voice alone, not appropriately channeled into the proper style, could end up smothering the story to death.
Voice and Style – an example
A) The man was exhausted. The dark circles under his eyes reminded Paul of The Scream, by Munch. The light coming through the railroad car windows washed over him in harsh, intermittent flashes and put in sharp contrast the curve of his nose. It was broken, Paul noticed. And blood trickled from it.
B) Paul looked at the man with curiosity. His eyes were wide and vacuous. His eyes were the eyes of a man on the brink of exhaustion. He reminded Paul of that painting, The Scream. Sure, The Scream. Munch was one of his preferred artists.
Paul could see the man only when the light illuminated him through the windows of the railroad car. But the broken nose was unmissable, as it was the blood smattering his chin.
Version A and B describe more or less the same scene. Yet the natural voice of the author, which remains more or less the same in both versions, is molded into two different styles.
However, neither one is inherently better than the other. It all depends on the kind of story you want to write.
How to find your voice – a metaphor
You can think of the ingredients and the different dishes served in a restaurant. Of all the ingredients, the chef will tend to use certain ingredients more often than others–for example spicy ingredients.
These can be considered the equivalent of a writer’s voice. However, even using almost exclusively spicy ingredients it is possible to come up with an impressive number of different dishes–namely the different writing styles.