How to Develop Your “Author’s Voice” – and How Not to

authors tools wrenchIt is very easy to have your own voice. Basically your voice is anything in your writing style that makes you different from the competition. Some of these qualities are positive, but some are negative. Unfortunately, the negative ones are the easiest, because they tend to look like mistakes. Be careful not to fall into their snare.

We Are Not All Creative Geniuses

Let’s get that straight before you read this. If you are, you don’t need Indies Unlimited. You’re out there being the next e e cummings or writing this century’s equivalent of Ulysses or One Hundred Years of Solitude.

But you and I are not that lucky. We’re decent writers trying to get better. So let’s approach our writing from that point of view. What makes a strong writing style?

The Positive

This is the easiest set of characteristics to define, hardest to accomplish. They are the creative and imaginative things you do that assist in communicating ideas and emotions to your reader in refreshing and powerful ways. They bring readers into the story without jarring them out by drawing attention to themselves. Passionate, compelling, focused, flowing gracefully, and above all appropriate to your audience. Simple to do, yes? Work on it for the next twenty years.

The Negative

Being different is very easy, because it is the sum total of the mistakes you make. That’s right. The easy way to be different is to use forms and techniques that don’t follow the rules. Think about it. When you’re writing a character and you want his voice to be recognized, you give him a dialect. He says “ain’t” instead of “isn’t” and refers to his wife as “the old lady.” One is grammatically incorrect, the other socially. However we feel about this person, we recognize his voice whenever he speaks. By giving him these mistakes, you tell us that he is an uneducated boor. Well done. We all get it.

But when the author’s writing contains this kind of error, the reader has a problem. Is the author breaking the rules on purpose or by mistake? It isn’t always obvious, and you have to ask yourself the (I hope) rhetorical question: Do I want the reader to focus on my style or my story? If you are consciously trying to create a style, giving the reader hints on this question is foremost in your mind. e. e. cummings had it easy. Nobody ever thought that he missed all those capitals by mistake. But if your personal style includes an interesting variety of sentence structure, make sure you don’t fill your book with errors of the, “Going to the store, a rabbit bit me,” variety. You’re sending mixed messages, and the only conclusion readers can draw is that you don’t know how to write a proper sentence.

What Are the Criteria?

mime-13785_640When we’re looking at a piece of our more “creative” writing and deciding whether to keep it or can it, we have to know who will notice the mistake and who will care. Authors are supposed to consider their readers: thoughts like, “My readers know what ‘alright’ means, and they don’t care, so I’ll spell it like that because it makes me sound edgy and anti–establishment.” They are not supposed to think, “Oh, I didn’t know that ‘alright’ was wrong.”

I can tell you one thing. If I open a book sent in for a review and see “alright,” I probably reject it. Not because there’s an error. There are some pretty rough ARCs of good books floating around. I drop it because it allows me to classify the author. First, that author isn’t speaking to me. He’s probably writing for an audience that isn’t bothered by sloppy writing, and there’s a good chance the plotline and character consistency will be loose as well. Secondly, this author doesn’t care enough to do it right. He thinks he’s writing for kids, so he can talk down to them. I classify this as a beginning author writing for young people, and I drop the book. Odds are I wouldn’t give it a decent review anyway.

You Get Used to It

I would suggest that good writing style is something you may notice a bit at the beginning, but as you read on you lose track of it in your enjoyment of the book. After the first fifty pages, the dense style of One Hundred Years of Solitude becomes the norm, and you stop worrying about it. Joyce most definitely wanted us to notice his style. The moment you get used to Ulysses, he tosses you a curve. He doesn’t want you to be comfortable. His choice.

Personally, I have spent the last ten years trying to polish out all the writing errors that made my style stand out. Because of my playwright training, I tend to write dialogue a little more like people really talk — pauses, fragmented sentences, that sort of thing — but I know that technique can be jarring as well, so I use it in moderation. My ideal writing style is to have few distinguishing qualities apart from good plotlines, charismatic characters and tight, simple writing. I hope I’m getting better at it.

Oh, and About Those Geniuses

Cummings graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, Joyce was a university professor, and Marquez was a law student-turned-journalist. All of them knew the rules well, and broke them for good reason. We don’t have that excuse. We are journeymen working in a competitive market, and we can’t afford to excuse sloppy writing by pretending it’s creative.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

11 thoughts on “How to Develop Your “Author’s Voice” – and How Not to”

  1. I agree Gordon. Only an outside few can get away with ignoring the rules of language and grammar. I read one book in which the author shunned quotation marks for dialogue. I never did get used to it. It truly detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

    I also saw the argument that writers can do what they please as it’s their creation. I just shook my head thinking, “only if you wan’t no one to read it”.

  2. Excellent post, Gordon. You nail it when you ask: Do I want the reader to focus on my style or my story? I have often said I want my words to be transparent; I want the reader to see right through them to the story that’s unfolding in their mind. Using cutesy styles and shortcuts is in direct opposition to that.

    1. Melissa, there are a few genres where the style of the writing becomes a bit more important, namely comedy and weird fantasy. However, if you’re doing that sort of writing you really need an outside viewpoint or three to tell you what’s working and what’s not.

  3. Yvonne, That writer should have asked, “How does leaving out the quotation marks make reading a more enjoyable and/or meaningful experience?” If the answer was, “Because it makes me stand out among other writers as edgy and progressive,” then we know the root of the problem. The writer’s ego goes in the closet when the pen comes out.

  4. Good article, Gordon. I remember reading a slightly different definition of “style” long ago in a Writer’s Digest article. It went something like this: “Your style is how you write when you write at your clearest.” At the time, I found it a bit perplexing, because this doesn’t say anything about standing out or being different or unique. It’s simply what happens when you get all the garbage out of the way . . . which is very much in line with what you’re saying.

    I do notice style sometimes. Ray Bradbury comes to mind. I never read him without noticing his style, but then his style is part of the reason I read his works. It’s absolutely delightful, even when he’s telling a dark and disturbing story. Sometimes I notice a style when it’s particularly bland, which is not a good thing, but that’s another story entirely.

    1. Dale, I love the “at your cleanest” part 🙂

      It’s been a while since I read any Bradbury. What do you find “delightful” about it? I’d be interested, because I’ve rarely found anyone’s style delightful, except perhaps few comedic fantasy books whose intent was to delight the audience.

  5. Bradbury’s style is often described as poetic. I’m not often in tune with poetry, but his poetic prose makes is a big part of the charm. I also find him exuberant. It’s clear he loves to tell stories and wants to draw his readers fully into them. It’s hard not to be infected by his enthusiasm.

  6. Okay, Dale, I’m busted. That was something that should have been mentioned in the original article. The emotional content of our writing is a big part of our style. Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing to have in your writing (as long as you don’t try to show it with a lot of exclamation points !!!!).

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