Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Importance of "Voice"

One of the most painful yet valuable comments I received back when I first started trying to get someone to buy my stories was this snippet from a publisher: "Solid writing and an intriguing cast of characters, just not slick enough". I remember feeling my enthusiasm at having found an agent melt like ice-cream on a hot summer's day. That sentence contained two big positives. "Solid" was good. "Intriguing" was very good. But what was all this about not being "slick" enough?

Over time, it slowly began to dawn on me exactly what that meant. Like most people, I had been taught to write essays at school with the aim of writing clearly and correctly. My teachers were not interested in style or personality. They just wanted to make sure the writing was comprehensible. The result? Solid writing, but also bland, dull, boring, dry, dull, dull and dull (or, in my case, "not slick enough").

They say that most writers begin as readers, which sounds fair enough. Many will be avid bookworms who one day come to the conclusion: "hey, that's not so hard. I can do that" and set about mimicking their favorite author. And that's a big part of the problem. The world already has a Dickens, and a Hemingway, and a King. If people want to read Emily Brontë, they will borrow or buy Emily Brontë. If they want to read Jonathan Safran Foer, they can go out and look for something with his name on it. When people pick up a book with (insert your name here) on it, they don't want to read Ludlum, or Crichton or (gulp) Meyer, they want to read (insert your name here).

The fact is that when an agent, editor or publisher wearily lifts your neatly-typed mansucript from the mountain of paper that is their acqusitions in-tray, they don't want to read another Jane Austen. Chances are they've already read a hundred Jane Austen clones that week. What they are looking for is a story told with a fresh voice that they haven't heard before.

Of course there are the usual rules (sorry, guidelines) such as not starting your story right at the very beginning (you may have read the advice to begin at chapter three), and of following the accepted rules of good grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Your characters should be believable and their dialogue true-to-life. There are suggestions about plot, rhythm and pacing. The story should be interesting enough that people will want to read it. But above all of that, around it, enveloping it, imbuing it, is your voice.

What then, is your voice? In short, it is the unique combination of style, technique, sentence structure, vocabulary, and punctuation that is your way of telling your story. It is how you express yourself when telling your tale. Watch a group of people and how they interact. Hand gestures, tone, body position, facial expressions, language. These are all things that come together to make each person's way of telling a story unique, and it's the same with your writing. Your voice is basically your personality shining through your writing.

On the bottom left corner of my personal website is a badge that states "I write like Douglas Adams". I stumbled upon a site that will analyse your writing and compare it to a famous author. I was flattered at first to think that I could be compared to someone as famous as Adams, but recently I have started to resent this. For one thing, I had never read any of Douglas Adams' writing until a few weeks ago, so how come I write like him? Secondly, I don't want to write like Douglas Adams. I want to write like P.A. Baines. When someone picks up one of my stories, I don't want them to think about anyone else but me. I want them to know my voice and anticipate a story told in that voice. I want to stand out, not because I write like such-a-body or so-and-so, but because I write like me.

So next time you sit down to write, don't try to mimic anyone. Instead, tell the story the way you want to tell it. Throw out the rules if you have to (you can always fix that later on). Dive into your writing with joyous abandon. Forget all the other writers out there and do it your way. It's liberating and fun, and you may just surprise yourself.

As for me, as soon as I have a moment to spare I am going to change that badge on the bottom corner of my website to say: "I write like P.A. Baines".

For more reading, I highly recommend "Finding Your Voice" by Les Edgerton.


  1. Well said, Paul! ;) Wouldn't want your voice to be like anyone else's, indeed.

  2. Voice is such an illusive thing. How to have my own recognizable voice and yet not have all my characters sound the same. Thanks for this.

  3. AMEN!!! I have a hard time reading a book that is the next (fill in famous name here). I already read that, give me someting new.