by Dawn Bollinger
Novice writers struggle to find their voice, actually veteran writers do as well. Every writer has a unique voice. Your writer’s voice is like no other. It is as unique as your fingerprints, voice patterns and pitches. Others may echo what you have to say as a writer, but trust me, no one can ever speak in your writer’s voice—it’s yours, and yours alone. It takes practice to make your unique voice a strong voice.
Strong writer’s voices share seven characteristics:
Honesty – your reader must trust you implicitly. If you write in a believable fashion, the reader will follow you anywhere.
“ For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing, and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”
John Steinbeck’s The Pearl
Steinbeck speaks to his reader as a friend or an adviser, who is calling you aside to let you in on a secret about life. His tone seems wise, and it causes us to consider the validity of the statement. Is that true for me? If the reader begins to wonder about himself or herself, the the reader is hooked.
Clarity – your reader has a very limited amount of time that he is willing to expend on your work. Readers do not like writing that is too convoluted.
“ The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropical sea were on his cheeks.”
Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea
The reader has a clear mental picture of the old man’s physical appearance. There can be no mistaking him. The beautiful part is that Hemingway did not take pages and pages to create a precise image.
Conciseness – your reader has a brief attention span related to his or her amount of time. Write with intent and purpose and limit (or remove) details which are not necessary to developing the elements of your story.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”
Earnest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Hemingway uses a simple vocabulary and sentence structure with very few descriptors. The sparseness of the words on the page seems to parallel the sparseness of the fish the old man has caught. As in the previous example, he is able to paint a word picture strongly with as few words as possible. This is nearly poetry in prose. Hemingway’s journalism background is very evident.
Intelligence – your reader is bright. Use the right word, the specific word to express your meaning. Write in the vernacular, but do not use the vernacular to write down to your reader.
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in sweltering shade of live oaks on the square. “
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee walks you down the street of Maycomb. Her words invite the reader into her world, her hometown, and a very different time from her present. She is remembering something. Though the words are not difficult, they will cause a careful reader to wonder what a Hoover cart might be. She respects her reader because she takes the time to explain her world to you.
Realism – your reader must believe in the world you create to suspend his or her disbelief. This means that your words must create a world that is recognizable, understandable, and consistent.
“ She would have no one with her when the hour came…. A smell of hot blood came through the crack, a sickening smell that frightened him (Wang Lung). The panting of the woman within became quick and loud, like whispered screams, but she make no sound aloud. When he could bear no more and was about to break into the room, a thin fierce cry came out, and he for-got everything.”
Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth
Pearl Buck describes a woman giving birth. It is from the perspective of her husband, Wang Lung, standing outside the door. This is what he hears, smells and thinks. She has the reader there at the door, waiting. She does not pretty up or sanitize the experience of childbirth. (The woman goes right back out into the field and works immediately after having her baby. That fact has always stuck with me)
Enticement – your reader does not have to read your story. Lure your reader in. Write in such a way that their curiosity is piqued. Keep up the tension, so your reader wants to know what happens next.
“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least how I try.”
Here is a fact
You are going to die.”
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Connectedness– your reader wants to be in the world you create. Know your audience. See your audience. Write to your audience.
“I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about his whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing in me, no matter my protestations. Please trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.”
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Zusak uses death as the narrator. We all would like death explained to us, explained away if possible. We want to know how death could ever be amiable, but we find ourselves drawn in some strange way to this narrator. We trust him because he has spoken some truth: was are all going to die one day.
If after reading these writer’s voice guidelines, you still feel your writer’s voice shaking, study the masters. Writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, each have a very unique writing voice. If you will read samples of their works, you will see that Faulkner will never sound anything like Hemingway. They might write about the same subjects, but they will never sound the same. Your writer’s voice is akin to your writing style, though they are not the same thing.
If you want to write well, you must read well. Read indiscriminately. Write as much as possible. Notice patterns in your own writing. Notice your word choice. All writers have favorite words, their writing vocabulary. Notice your sentence structure? Do you favor long or short sentences? Do you write long involved paragraphs? Is your writing concise or verbose.
If you will take the time to consider the seven characteristics of your writing, you will hear your writer’s voice coming through loud and clear.