Voice: What Keeps us Reading
by Willy Doehring, River co-editor
The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.
Of all the aspects of writing, voice can sometimes be one of the hardest to pin down. Most writers know what it means when they hear it, but if you or someone else doesn’t it can be a challenge trying to explain it. With that in mind, I’m going to try by starting with something I heard during my first semester at UMF:
“Every story has already been told.”
I bristled when I heard it— how could every story already have been told? It didn’t seem possible, especially given all the stories I had yet to even write. Surely, nobody has thought of the characters and plot-lines that had been occupying my mind for years. If they had, what would be the point of writing at all?
In some regards, I was right to be skeptical— by saying every story has already been told, one doesn’t mean that your specific plot or characters have already been thought up and written into existence by some other person. However, what is true about this statement is that most (if not all) stories, when boiled down to their basic plot elements, follow a certain narrative pattern that has been done before. Whether it’s a coming of age story, a quest for revenge, or the classic struggle between good and evil, there’s a virtual guarantee that it’s been told many times over.
And so, the question becomes: why write stories if they’ve all been told before? This is where the author’s voice— your voice— comes in. While its probable that every story has been told before, it is also a certainty that there is only one of you. Sure, that sounds cheesy, but it’s also why the author’s voice is such an integral part of writing.
Voice, in the broadest sense, encompasses everything that makes your writing unique when compared to any other writer. Your personal choice of diction, use of syntax, unique descriptions of characters and scenes— all of this combines to convey your voice as an author.
The bottom line is: even if every story has already been told, we read because everyone writes stories with a different voice. Even if you’ve read a hundred stories about growing up, if your voice comes through you can write about growing up and make it interesting for all kinds of readers.
Of course, developing your voice as a writer takes time and practice; everyone has their own individual way of seeing the world, yes, but for many it can be hard to translate that unique voice from your mind to the page. Often, we are influenced by the writing we consume— something that is truer than ever, as you can immerse yourself in an endless stream of literature and film with the click of your mouse.
This isn’t a bad thing by any means (as a writer, you should read and watch as much as possible), sometimes writers (myself at times included) latch on to words, phrases or even patterns of syntax that we find while reading the work of others. One of the keys to finding your voice is deciphering what you can learn from the things you read without trying to get your writing to “sound like” anyone’s but your own.
If there’s any advice I can give, it’s simple: write, and write often! The best way to develop your voice is use it often and try not to worry about it sounding like anything else. And no matter what story you’re telling, know that you’re the only one who can tell it your way.