A writer’s Voice. It’s elusive, no? Although we talk about it a lot, try to define it (somewhat), its meaning can feel as mysterious as a memory suspended on the periphery of your mind, which you can never quite catch . . .
Simply, voice is the style unique to a writer.
Not terribly helpful, I know.
Some are easy to see—the sparse style of Hemingway, the stream-of-consciousness of Faulkner. Even the clipped while rich prose of Anthony Doerr.
A voice all its own takes a while to hone. You might be able to recognize yours early on (or not!), but fashioning and polishing it into something solely yours takes years to achieve.
In the beginning, you honestly can’t edit out your voice, as that would be akin to shaping a plump baby into an elephant. Okay, so it’s not quite that drastic, but until you actually find your voice and polish it to a bright sheen, whether you’re initially creating, or editing a fourth draft, your voice is yet to be your very own.
It’s rather an amalgam of all the folks you’ve read.
Oh, I’m not saying yours isn’t in there, but chances are, it’s buried beneath yards of verbiage, mountains of dirt and detritus that still requires years of shoveling and then many more of handbrooms and dental picks to carefully excavate the jewel that says: Uniquely You.
Because even though you have nuances that belong only to you, the rest is like that nursery ward with all those baby butts sticking up and except for the rainbow of colors, picking out your very baby through the thick glass takes some searching.
So never worry about losing your voice in the beginning—you can’t lose what you never had.
As you progress down this crazy writer’s path, however, that voice starts to become clearer. It’s not just the words you choose, the ones that seem to crop up in all your work. It’s not just the syntax and how you string those words into one long clothesline filled with pins and sheets and blouses fluttering in the wind.
It’s not whether you write sparsely or flowery, with purple prose or glaring infelicitous clangs. All of that will come out with the sweeping away of the dust. If you stick with it, that is J
Style is a combination of all of those things, with the nebulous overlay of nuances that are all your own.
By continuing to write, to hone your voice, to edit away all that flotsam and jetsam, you bring what is uniquely yours closer and closer to the surface. You can almost feel it, can’t you? See the words forming images that though still blurred by the rippling water, take on more and better-defined shape.
Until one day, you emerge from the depths. And your voice shines clear and bright.
One day, someone reads your work and says, “That sounds like you.” Not the you talking to her across the fence, but a you she sensed was there. Somehow. Someway. By means your reader can’t discern.
And of course then, no way exists to edit out your voice.
Early in my career, I had the benefit of working with marvelous editors at Traditional publishing houses. By then, I was confident in my own voice, and had a sense they would just make the books better. Which they did.
And of course, a great editor strives to keep polishing a writer’s voice, not to change it.
I have had a litany of writers come to me and say, “This editor rewrote my book!” Then of course you would lose your voice, as you’d have someone else’s running through it. If that happens, run! Because you’ve just gotten into bed with a vampire trying to steal your soul.
Because a great editor doesn’t re-write your book for you. A great editor helps you hone and polish it on your own, with guidance and a teaching of what makes for great prose.
By the point of course that you get to a traditional publishing-house editor, losing your voice will be moot. You’ve had all those years to find and hone it, and the tiniest word out of place will clang in your own ears.
It can’t really happen, once voice is formed and you are confident in it.
Besides, the final choices are always up to you.