The topic of a writer’s voice has come up a few times in the blogosphere lately, in different forms, so I’d like to revisit the topic here. Writers are often told by industry professionals that one of the things they’re really looking for is someone with a “great voice”, but what does this mean for you the writer?
First of all, know right now, you will not find your voice particularly “great”. You won’t realize it’s unique or hear it as anything special. You might not even know you have a “voice”. Because your voice is the thing you hear in your head all the time. Your voice is you. And you’re used to you, so you don’t necessarily see the way your voice is interesting.
But it is interesting. The way you choose words and the order you put them in, the rhythms and flow of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, the way you use things like ellipsis and semicolons—all this is part of your voice. Simply writing in the way that feels natural, like the sound of your own voice in your head, is your voice as a writer.
You can hone this voice, make it stronger and more distinct in your writing, by learning your craft, by studying and practicing your art, and by filling your writer’s toolbox with as many techniques as possible so you have lots of things to choose from when coming to the page.
You can also bury your voice by following too many writing “rules”. There are an infinite number of supposed rules that get bandied about. There is always someone around to tell you what you can and can’t do in your fiction. The problem is, most of these supposed rules are just style choices and those choices will change.
In the past, the omniscient viewpoint was used all the time in fiction. Now people will tell you it’s bad writing. It’s not. It’s just a style that’s out of favor. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. It just means a lot of people aren’t used to it anymore and they may have a knee-jerk reaction to it. The poor little oxford comma causes all kinds of debate because some people will tell you it is absolutely “wrong” to use it, while others will tell you it’s absolutely “wrong” to leave it out. Actually, this is just another style choice as both ways of approaching the oxford comma are considered correct.
Writers could drive themselves crazy trying to follow every rule someone decides we should follow. And in doing so, you’ll drown out that uniqueness that only you can bring to your stories.
The rules are important to know and understand because they are often what is expected. But they’re not carved in stone. If you want to use a semicolon, then bloody well use a semicolon. If you hate them, don’t bother.
Now there’s a difference between grammar, craft, and these “rules” I’m talking about. Learning basic grammar is important because you’re trying to convey images via the written word in a specific language—you’re hoping to transfer the story in your head, as closely as possible, to a perfect stranger’s head. There are some very basic tools used to ensure clear communication between individuals using the same language. Those are your grammar rules.
Craft is a broader topic that deals with how you use grammar and language to build pictures and manipulate emotions in your readers. It’s full of choices and tools, things that help you get what’s in your head out onto the page in the most effective way possible. Whereas grammar does have some hard and fast rules to keep language from being nonsensical, craft is the study of techniques, not all of which will be used at any given point in time or on every single story.
It’s the craft of writing, which tools you utilize and how, that really brings out your voice, and this is where the art of writing comes from. But then there are the writer workshop/critique group rules: you must use third person limited point of view; you must change chapters or at least use a line break to change POV; you can’t mix first and third point of view in a single story; you can’t use semicolons, or parenthesis, or ellipsis; you can’t use the same word twice on the same page.
Anytime someone tells you you can’t use one of the tools in your toolbox or you have to use other tools all the time, give that supposed rule the side-eye.
These are suggestions. These are techniques that are in particular favor right now. These are elements that might be more accessible to modern audiences. They might even help your flow and readability. They could help bring out the strength of your voice.
But they are not rules. They are style choices, like every other style choice. And if your voice calls for using conjunctions to start a sentence, then toss out the “rule” that claims you can’t (as I do all the time).
Always remember these are your stories, this is your writing, and your voice. If you’re most comfortable telling stories from multiple points of view and in both first and third, then learn how to do that in an effective way, and ignore the people telling you it’s not possible. If you do it well, people will read your fiction and love it because no one else could have told the story in just that way.
Keep in mind, not everyone will like your style choices, and not everyone will love your voice. That’s just the way it is. Some voices will suit some people’s tastes better than others. You’re not writing to please everyone. That’s impossible anyway. You’re writing to tell your stories in the best way you know how. Some people will love them and others simply won’t. But that’s not because you’ve broken some arbitrary rule laid down by a critique group.
Learn as much about the craft as possible, and keep learning. Practice with every story you write. Study storytelling. Read a lot. Watch a lot of movies and TV shows. The more you know, the better you’ll be at writing from your strengths and your individual voice. Then protect that voice for all your worth. It’s what makes your stories yours. And it’s that uniqueness that will draw readers to your books.♥
Isabo Kelly is the author of multiple, award winning science fiction and fantasy romances. Under the name Kat Simons, she also writes bestselling paranormal romances. For more on Isabo or Kat, visit www.isabokelly.com or www.katsimons.com.