All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. – Ernest Hemingway
Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you can recognize a good voice when you read it. As such, I think it’s a hard concept to learn. I mean, the voice is either good or it’s not. But how do you really identify what makes a voice good? (Or worse, great?)
I was a voracious reader as a kid. I haven’t changed much as an adult. I never gave much thought to voice, to be truthful, until I started seriously pursuing the traditional publishing path for WTRPCPSU, and only then because article after article discussed the importance of voice. And then I started paying attention to the books I liked. What did I like about them? What drew me in and held my attention? It isn’t necessarily the story itself that compels me to finish reading. It’s that something, the way the story is told, that makes me want to keep reading.
It’s the author’s voice.
I read an interview with an author who talked about how she developed her voice. She used to mimic other writers she’d read, and as she expanded her reading library, she discovered other voices to mimic until she finally developed her own. I really wish I could remember who the author was and where I read the interview because it’s one I would love to share, if for no other reason than to stress the importance of reading to learn the writing craft.
A few years ago, my sister gave me a Kindle for Christmas. It was (and still is) one of the best presents I’ve ever received. I love that device, and I mean I truly love it. The very first book I read on it was Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I downloaded several dozen books within a week of receiving it. One of those was a novel I had wanted to read for some time now but had always intimidated me by its sheer size: Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Before you think that I was only reading classics, I’ll have to interject that that definitely was not the case. But I mixed things up quite a bit. I read War and Peace, yes, but I also began Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series right after it. I mixed up the genres, authors, and time periods. I mixed up subject matter. I read both self-published and traditionally published work.
A crazy thing happens when you read all over the map like that: You start recognizing voices and identifying with them. You subconsciously make notes of what deliveries you liked and what you would do differently. You start to rewrite entire paragraphs while you read – and that is when you are establishing your voice.
I dare you to try it. Pick a book off the shelf (preferably one you know pretty well), turn to a random page, and rewrite a couple of (non-dialogue) paragraphs. Note how you might say things differently. Note how you might use a different vocabulary. Note how you may emphasize different things than the author did.
Those differences? Those make up your voice.
Me? I write the same way I talk. You can read this post and know that if you and I were having a conversation about voice, whatever I’d say would sound a lot like this post does.
That’s my voice.
When I’m writing business communications at work, I write the same way I talk. It’s a bit more formal, and I tend to use industry-specific terms, but whatever I would say in person sounds a lot like my emails.
That’s my voice.
But when I’m writing, I assume someone else’s identity, and I write the same way I imagine that character would talk.
Because that’s her voice.