Friday, October 1, 2010

Finding Your Writer's Voice

As writers it’s our job to make sure we’re conveying a message in a particular way. Just as actors express the thoughts, feelings, and emotions in the voice of their character, writers are responsible for getting a message across in the “voice” of a certain client or publication. We’re advised to study back issues or past marketing materials to make sure we’re capturing just the right voice for a particular project. Most of the time, except for the byline we’re kept out of it—our personal writerly voice has to be adapted for the work.

Except when it doesn’t.

There are countless writers who make a perfectly respectable (enviable, even) living by just being themselves—so much, in fact, that I often wonder what their friends and families must think! It’s no easy task to just put yourself out there, let alone drag a friend or relative along with you. It’s this “say anything” approach that makes me admire freelancers like Michelle Goodman (The Anti-9-5 Guide, My So-Called Freelance Life) and memoirists like Jen Lancaster (Bitter Is the New Black, My Fair Lazy, among others) and Laurie Notaro (The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club, Autobiography of a Fat Bride, among others!)—all of whom have the writing style that makes you want to hang out with them…voices with just the right combination of wit and sarcasm but a down-to-earth realness, as well. You get the idea that you could spit soda out of your nose in front of them and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

I think most people would agree that one of the best parts about writing is that it lets us dabble in so many areas and learn so many different things, and thus, use so many different voices. It also lets us show different sides of ourselves. Someone may write software textbooks to pay the bills, but their real passion is the racy poetry they scribble whenever they get a free moment. There’s something very freeing and liberating about being able to just say what you think or feel.

As for me, I have a very dry wit and sarcastic sense of humor that comes across quite plainly in person but is hard to work in to many of my assignments. (I don’t know—“the basics of yoga” doesn’t really lend itself to snarkiness). I also have this bold, “here’s what I think and I don’t care what you think” side that I keep in check much more than I should at times (I call it my “inner George Carlin”). But instead, for most of my assignments I return to my usual, “safe” voice that does a good job of getting the message across but doesn’t reveal much of myself, for the most part. A secret goal is to work my edgier, bolder side into more of my fiction. I suppose my writing is like my personality—a constant work in progress.

What about you? What “voice” do you normally use in your writing? Which “voice” or side of your personality do you wish you could share more often?

1 comment:

  1. I've written for newspapers and magazines for more than a decade - hard news and features on topics ranging from coupon clipping to air pollution to civil rights. I was so accustomed for so many years to writing concise, clipped sentences in an inverted pyramid format that when I started writing fiction, it really opened things up for me.

    (Let me interject that in 10 years of journalism, it wasn't a goal of mine to become a novelist. Then one day an idea hit, and suddenly I was one.)

    Writing 108,000 (pre-edited) words in freeform, using all the adjectives I wanted, being as flowery as I wanted and (heaven forbid) making up all the dialogue was a major stretch at first. But I realized quickly that I loved it. Really, really loved it.

    And writing fiction has changed the way I write non-fiction. I approach stories differently now, with more of a voice and more determination to find the "story behind the story," if that makes sense. My editors have noticed, and I've gotten some great feedback. None of them know the reason behind it - I'm still revising my manuscript and haven't attempted to get it published yet. But I love writing - all types of writing - more now than I ever have, and that's because I'm letting myself have fun with it instead of following a formula.