A Distinctive Voice
Several years ago, a well-known book editor challenged the writers on the Dorothyl Mystery List to tell him why he should publish them. He got a variety of answers, some of them very good. But my answer garnered positive special notice from him.
My answer? "Because I have a distinctive voice and I have something to say."
We can talk about having something to say another time (Hint: If you’re writing fiction, your first job is to interest the reader before you try anything else). Instead, let’s discuss voice in writing.
It's hard to define what a writer's voice is, but it’s easy to recognize it. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart once said about pornography, it’s hard to use words to define it, but "I know it when I see it."
But what is "it" (a writer’s voice, not other things)?
It's not hard to distinguish the writing of Jane Austen from Ernest Hemingway. I don’t mean subject matter (e.g. bull fighting versus riding a carriage to the village). I mean the tenor and tone of the writing. The distinctive combination of sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and style makes it easy to identify which writer you’re reading. In fact, I’d wager that most literate people would be able to quickly identify these two writers if they were presented with text samples from both (and told the names of the authors). Why? Because Austen and Hemingway have distinctive voices.
It's been said that to make it as a singer, someone needs a distinctive voice. I think Tammy Wynette said that, and heaven knows she had a distinctive voice. If you think about it, most successful singers have distinctive voices (e.g., Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, etc.). If you are a singer who sounds exactly like a famous singer, you may be a good singer, but you might be condemned to singing with a tribute band, instead of forging a career for yourself.
Just like singers, writers who have distinctive writing voices also stand out. But how do you develop a distinctive writing voice?
Like most things involving the craft of writing, developing a voice involves a lot of writing. Sometimes an awful lot.
Many people start by imitating another writer they admire (consciously or unconsciously). Sentence length, the rhythm of a line, the vocabulary, and how a story is put together are all things that can be borrowed from a writing idol. Most writers find that the first "voice" they use is not the same voice they have when they become a mature writer. In fact, if you continue writing just like Hemingway or Austen, you run the risk of looking like you’re writing a parody.
After you’ve written enough, most people find things distinctive to themselves start showing up. At this point, you must identify your personal quirks and decide if they are effective. This can be hard. But it can also develop your distinctive voice. (Yes, I just did two things that I do: A short, declarative sentence [“This can be hard.”] and another sentence that starts with a conjunctive which most writers would have combined with the sentence that proceeds it [“But it can also…]. I don’t do this intentionally. I do it because this is how my brain, spoiled by reading too much e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound, works).
You want to develop a writing voice that is natural to you, so you use it effortlessly. That’s where the work comes in (like the old joke: Tourist - “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” New Yorker - “Practice, practice, practice”).
Generally speaking, I think it’s important to have a range of writers with a range of voices. But I hate it when some writers develop a “voice” that is a gimmick. I get tired of reading something like prose with no punctuation or dialog with no quotes.
But otherwise, I am interested in reading people with distinctive voices. Frankly, if we homogenized writers to an “approved” voice, we might as well hang up the keyboard and cede the field to whatever AI Novel Writing Bot is lurking on someone's computer.
I know some may find cold comfort in my advice that developing your voice involves a lot of writing. Unfortunately, I believe that most things in writing involve doing a lot of writing. If you write with awareness and purpose, things like a distinctive voice will develop over time. So will a lot of other good things. Very good things.