Saturday, January 2, 2010

Do You Have A Writing Voice?

Do You Have A Writing Voice?
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman

What is "writer's voice"? It's that indelible stamp, that special quality that identifies your work as written by you. For example, if you were to place an essay by Mark Twain side-by-side with an excerpt from one of his novels, you would notice that the two pieces share many similar characteristics. The concept of "voice" can seem somewhat nebulous or abstract, but there are certain elements that define voice, including: sentence structure, punctuation, tone, vocabulary and/or diction, and subject matter.

Elements of Voice

Sentence Structure. The length of individual sentences, the frequency of long, complex sentences versus the use of simple declarative sentences is one of the first hallmarks of a writer's voice. The sentences of Charles Dickens are elaborate and complex, laden with commas and parallelism. One of the most famous examples is the opening sentence of his novel, Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." Compare this to a sentence from Hemingway's novel, A Farewell to Arms, in which he uses simple, declarative sentences and repetition rather than parallelism: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

Punctuation. Some writers, such as James Joyce, limit the use of punctuation. Joyce preferred to use dashes for dialogue, referring to quotation marks as "perverted commas." In the final eight paragraphs of his novel, Ulysses, he omitted punctuation entirely because he wanted the reader to experience true stream of consciousness prose. If we return to our friend Mr. Dickens and read the quote above, we see that he depended upon the comma and the dash to link a series of ideas.

Tone. Mark Twain's works are laced with irony and wit, filled with observations of the foibles of human nature. When he writes about racism or ignorance, we laugh—albeit sometimes uncomfortably. William Styron touches upon these same topics in his novels, but his approach is more intense, darker. When Styron writes about racism and ignorance in The Confessions of Nat Turner, we shudder or turn away in horror.
Vocabulary/Diction. The very words we choose for our work define our voice. William Safire's sophisticated vocabulary reflects his strong interest in linguistics. He uses such words as "vituperator" (one who abuses another with words) with ease. By comparison, Hemingway's vocabulary seems almost childlike, relying primarily on simple, one-or-two-syllable words. Yet, both writers communicate effectively.

Subject Matter. Almost every writer has his favorite subjects, topics he returns to again and again. Flannery O'Connor's short stories are populated with grotesque characters seeking spiritual or religious understanding. Nearly every one of John Irving's books contains at least one reference to wrestling, bears, disfiguring accidents, or boarding schools. Our topics select us as much as we select them, another means of identifying our voice.

Developing Your Voice

The fully formed writer's voice is not born with the first story or poem but is refined with years of practice, experimentation, and effort. However, there are probably hints of that voice in the first page the writer creates. How do you develop your voice into a distinctive style that reflects you as a writer? Begin with the following techniques:

Write Often. If you want to do anything well, you need to practice. If you want to play a musical instrument, you practice scales and etudes. If you want to develop your writer's voice, then write on a daily basis.

Read and Emulate. I often hear writers say they're reluctant to read works in their genre because they fear reading another author will "destroy or influence" their voice. Not true. You can learn much about your own voice by studying and copying the voice of other writers. In the same way that painters copy works of the masters to learn their secrets of technique, you can discern the tricks of more experienced writers by emulating their style or voice. Your natural voice will emerge in the process.

Build on Your Strengths and Strengthen Your Weaknesses. Do you have an affinity for writing vivid descriptions? Use that skill to effect when you need to build up a scene. Is dialogue your nemesis? Then push yourself to insert a few lines of conversation into as many scenes as possible. It's a matter of balance. Fire the big guns (your strengths) to establish your style or voice; shoot the arrows (your weaknesses) to develop new skills and enhance your existing strengths.

Experiment. Some of the best advice I received in my MFA program was to "take risks." I was encouraged to explore topics that made me uncomfortable, to play with punctuation and sentence structure, to experiment with form, and to stretch my personal boundaries. Michelangelo claimed that he "liberated the statue from the block of marble." If you dig deeper and chip away at the limitations you've set for yourself, you'll liberate your voice.

Happy writing!

Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.

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