Every masterful writer has a unique voice: Think James Joyce’s avant garde stream of consciousness, Mark Twain’s just-folks dissection of the human condition, Ray Bradbury’s nostalgic haze of poetic reverie, Bill Bryson’s mirthful menageries of adjectives and adverbs.
Great writers, whether literary giants or popular favorites, are the soloists of the writing choir. Most people, however, do not have, or have not yet developed, voice (otherwise referred to as mood, style, or tone), and are as yet relegated to the chorus.
But it doesn’t take all that much to develop a distinctive writing voice — other than practice, practice, practice — and by paying attention to the components of voice, you might get a shot at a solo now and then after all.
Voice is all about the choices you make: the topic, the story structure, the phrasing, the vocabulary, the details. But there’s more to it than that; there’s also the passion for the subject matter, and the fortitude of opinion.
Think of the works you’ve read from the writers I named above, or your own favorites. A certain way to lose a debate is to charge any one of them with apathy about the stories they tell, or a lack of investment in their ruminations about the decadence of society, bigotry and hypocrisy, small-town idylls and ideals, or the head-shaking absurdity of the human race.
This force of personality is manifested in details. Pick up a novel or a nonfiction work you admire and pick out any passage: Joyce’s intimate portraits of quotidian life in Dublin, Twain’s comic set pieces that reveal much more than is on the surface, Bradbury’s close-ups on canvases of endless, magical rural summer days, and Bryson’s apt, adept observations about eccentrics are all steeped in mesmerizing particulars that make reading about them the next best thing to being there.
Ways with words and sentences, too, are a prime marker of voice: Think of Bryson’s dense descriptive sentences punctuated with hyperbole or Bradbury’s odes to halcyon days of yore, Twain’s rich, subtly sarcastic regionalisms or Joyce’s offbeat observations. These are all reflections of the writer’s personality.
So many books are published today, especially with the explosion of self-published print books and e-books, that it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. One way is to come up with a unique perspective: the narrator is dead, and is observing events with a nebulous omniscience, or is from another planet, and is puzzled by the most basic of human habits and customs. But even the cleverest narrative conceit is of little use if a writer fails to inundate a story with original, authentic, individual thoughts and feelings.
Many writers are inspired by an established author who they model their own style after, but the key to success — not fame and fortune, but the satisfaction of having crafted a distinctive work — is to discover your own storytelling style, whether you write fact, fiction, or poetry.
To do so, you must understand yourself, your personality, the building materials that have gone into the construction of the edifice you are today. What joys, sorrows, triumphs, and defeats have you celebrated or suffered? How have relationships with family and friends shaped your approach to interpersonal interactions? What is your philosophy of life, and what is your answer to “What is the meaning of life?” (Mine is, “To live.” You’re welcome to copy my answer onto your paper.) A writer who fails at introspection fails at writing. To find your voice, you must sing to yourself about yourself, and transcribe the song.