August 22, 2012

Want a Stronger Authorial Voice In Your Writing? Write Like You Talk and LET GO.

We hear a lot about voice, how it's one of the most important things that agents and publishers look for when taking on an author. In the past I've given you my take on what voice is (for my purposes, when I'm blogging about voice I'm almost ALWAYS targeting authorial voice-the voice you bring as the author-not your character's voice or the narrative's style, but your own personal writing style, what makes your writing uniquely yours). If you missed my other post on it, it's here. Now I'd like to talk about one of the biggest ways that you can infuse your own unique voice into your work without doing anything drastic.

 Very simply put, you write like you talk.

What does this mean? It means pretending that the reader is right there in the room with you as you write. It means acting like the words you put on the page are the ones that would naturally come out of your mouth.Your writing should feel intimate, confident--you're talking to a dear friend after all. It's all about you letting down your defenses and letting this person glimpse the you only those closest to you ever see.

When you're talking to someone this close to you are you ever worried about sounding smart or witty? No, you're concentrating more on conveying the story in the clearest, most entertaining way possible and on building your relationship with them. You want them to laugh with you if the story is funny or cry with you if it's sad. Your natural need for them to do this is infused into how you tell the story from the start because you're most concerned with helping them understand why this story was so important for you to tell in the first place. I think sometimes writers (I'm talking about myself here too) get caught up in trying to sound like a writer. They use words/sentence structure that they would never in a million years use under normal circumstances with the hopes that it will somehow elevate the story or make their writing sound stronger when ultimately it sucks their voice right out of the story. It's crucial, especially in that all important first draft that you let the most unchecked part of yourself, the rawest part speak.

 So how do you know if you're writing with less authorial voice than you could be?

1. You're purposely put words into your writing that you would find in a Jane Austen or Dickens novel that would get you weird stares if you folded them into a conversation with your neighbor next door...and you're not writing a historical novel.

2. You are trying to sound Harvard educated if you know what I mean. This is a trap I think writers in MFA programs and who prize intellect above all things make the most. They're sounding pretentious to please the literary critiquers or to fake a pedigree.

3. Or on the opposite side, you're trying too hard to sound like a teenager in your contemporary novel and pepper every sentence with slang. I think slang on a whole should be avoided at all costs unless you have a very good reason to use it. It will date your story right out of the gate. Try to get back into the mindset of  a teenager--how intense that first love relationship can be, how difficult it is to separate from your parents and find your way, standing up for what you believe in, figuring out what exactly you believe in.

4. You're trying to sound like a famous author you admire. It worked for them, right?

Authorial voice is one of the hardest parts of the writing process to nail and I think it's because to do it, you have to let go. You can't control how it comes out on the page, you just have to let it come. I think it's a lot like dancing or singing well.

 When someone's whole heart is in it, you can feel it, it raises goosebumps on your skin, brings you to tears, leaves you breathless. Forget the art and craft of writing(assuming that you have a pretty good handle on all of these things to begin with) and get lost in the passion and I promise your voice will be in every single word.


  1. This is really interesting and very different from how I think about voice. To me, it sounds like you're describing one very specific kind of voice - an intimate and candid type of voice. But just about everything you listed as how to tell if your language is too formal are also kinds of voice. If I'm writing an historical piece set in Victorian England, the voice of the work should probably reflect that, likewise, if I'm writing a piece about someone who likes to think of themselves as a member of the educated elite, voice and word choice are ways to show that.

    I generally think voice requires absolute control of your craft because it can make or break the telling of a story. It's not so much a time to let go as it is a time to be precise.

    Unless, of course, you're talking about authorial voice, which is something pretty separate from narrative voice. Maybe that's what you mean?

    1. Oh man, Maggie Stiefvater reads my blog on a day when I apparently totally screwed the pooch. Figures;-) I do mean authorial voice. Sorry that wasn't clear. When I was talking about Victorian language I was going for those times when writers are writing a contemporary piece and still use really formal language or are trying to write a teenager's voice, but rely on slang to do it. And while I think your narrative language does have to reflect time period I think your authorial voice should be more contemporary than say Austen's or Shakespeare's. It isn't clear at all on reread though and so I am off to revise this post a bit. Let's hope I manage better this go round:-)

  2. I get what you mean, Amy, and I agree that sometimes writers may try too hard. Narrative voice is a hard thing to crack and it can takes years to really get a sense of what you're trying to convey as author.

    You didn't screw up at all, I'm sure many of us got what you meant and you pose a never-ending question in terms of writing. What is authentic to us as author and to our readers? Thanks for the post!

    1. You're sweet. The first version of this post was much less clear, so I'm glad it makes sense now;-)