Samuel Clemens had it.
Hemingway had it.
Stein had it.
Fitzgerald, Joyce, Conrad, Shaw, Eliot ….all had it.
No, not a pair of men’s pants in their closet, although I am guessing Stein did and maybe Eliot. These writers, every one of them, had voice.
Is there voice in your writing?
Let me borrow inspiration from Tolstoy… Great writers are all alike; every bad writer is bad in their own way. The truth is every great writer is great for a reason.
It sounds obvious, but it is a point I try to make each time I comment on someone’s work. Voice is the first thing I listen for—grammar, adverbs, adjectives, periods and commas and all those other things don’t amount to a hill of beans.
Voice is what separates writing from the mundane to good, and once established, great. What is it? Simple really and the reason (I believe) writers are born and not created. If you don’t have voice, chances are you are not going to develop it. Like tone deaf singer, what’s not there cannot be created. If voice is there, you can improve it but there has to be a foundation to start. With that, I refer to previous comments in past postings about writers of yesterday asking each other if their work was good. Seriously? Do you honestly think Mark Twain asked someone if his work was worthy? Maybe…doubt it.
Style or voice is the way you write, not what you write. Call it the way you speak which could be easiest for a writer to understand. It’s like the pig farmer wearing a five-thousand dollar Armani—he is still a pig farmer and trying to be something he is not (no offense to pig farmers). In fairness: Donald Trump fishing with live worms on a primitive camping trip. Not gonna happen.
Writers create their voice with word choices, tone, and sentence structure. This is the voice readers hear when they read your work and if you try to sound like something you are not it will shine through your words...loud and clear. One way or the other, you will show what you are.
Rather than just reading an established writer’s work, listen to the voice they portray. Read your writing back to you; use a voice recorder. We all know we don’t like the sound of our own voice, but you will get used to it. Close your eyes and see if you hear the voice in your work. You could be very surprised at what you hear.
The challenge I see is new writers, those not published, have a tendency to write as they think they should write. I did it just that when I began. They tend to use voice that is not theirs. When developing your voice, it is something uniquely yours. Clemens didn’t sound like Stien, and Stein didn’t sound like Joyce.
Your voice, like personality, will change as your writing develops but the foundation is there. I know a fellow writer that is tough, strong, and forceful in his speech pattern. His stories are exciting, keeping you on the edge of your seat, that is until he decides to espouse the voice he is not. He does not succeed with florid writing, what some call literary. That’s not his voice. Another writes in what one would call florid style, using flowering words and descriptions, but when I speak with this florid style writer, his speech pattern reflects in his writing. This is voice.
An example of true voice is Hemingway. Not that he is the only writer with voice (see above) but the guy oozed manhood; bullfights, wars, brawls and boxing. His writing was sparse—to the point. He could say more with less than anyone I have read (opinions may vary). His voice dribbled from his writing like jam on a peanut butter sandwich. Papa’s work is usually good for at least two reads—one for enjoyment, one for study. He is a writer that every aspiring writer should study.
In your next writing, or review of a writer’s work, listen for the voice of the writer. The work will usually sound natural and the reading will flow with a natural rhythm. It will be so obvious you may wonder how you missed it.