Call Off That Search for Your Voice

Writing manuals often talk about the importance of finding your own voice. Usually, they quote a famous writer or three in order to illustrate the differences between voices. Unfortunately, these books usually pick the extravagantly eccentric writers, such as Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, or Hunter S. Thompson, as examples of unique writing voices.

For example, try this passage:

Del had these two Seneca Indian cousins he got in tight with and spent time in the juvie facility up at Black River, that Zoe said she didn’t know anything about except what he told her, that wasn’t the entire truth, see—one of Del’s cousins was in for manslaughter second degree which off the rez might have been murder second degree but they don’t give much of a shit for what a drunk Indian will do to another drunk Indian, it would be a different story if one of them stomped a white man to death, right?

–Little Bird of Heaven, Joyce Carol Oates

This run-on, stream-of-consciousness voice is utterly unique, but that’s the problem. As this example illustrates, all that referring to writers such as Oates does is convince you that you must really strive to sound unusual in order to be distinctive. So you start playing with punctuation, interjections, run-on sentences, and sentence fragments. The result is a completely forced style in which the story takes the backseat. You not only can’t write well when you’re deliberately hewing to a style, but your readers will instantly recognize your posturing and write you off as pretentious.

Given the emphasis writer’s guides place on the necessity of having your own voice, you can be forgiven for thinking that it should be the primary focus of a budding writer. But I can’t overstate how little attention you should actually pay to finding that voice.

Honestly, writers last because of their ability to tell a story, not because they have a unique voice. Joyce Carol Oates, referenced above, for example, has not lasted for fifty-plus years because of her writing style—no, she remains relevant because of her insights into human nature.

So instead of focusing on cultivating a knockout style, focus simply on writing well and honestly. These are far more important skills to cultivate.

While you’re at it, you must read voraciously. Not just one writer, but many different writers in many different genres. The end result of writing and reading enough is an organic voice that’s naturally yours. And you won’t even have to try.

One response to “Call Off That Search for Your Voice

  1. You make a great point here. Voice and style are mostly side effects of doing a good job telling a story. If you are sincere in your story-telling, and focus on doing it the way you think is best for telling your specific story, the rest falls into place on its own. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone recommend a book to me because the author’s voice was distinctive. It’s either a great story, a compelling character, or both that makes for a good book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *