“I found my own voice,” he said.
He explained that when he was younger and just beginning to write he imitated celebrated poets. As he became more confident and progressed, he developed a style that was uniquely his.
There are several characteristics that make a professional writer, and among the most important of them is voice. It’s that special way of writing that distinguishes you from all other writers. It has to do with sentence structure, choice of words, level of emotion, even punctuation.
Look at novels by Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Hemingway was a bare bones writer. He used simple language and kept his sentences short while still packing deep emotion in his work. Faulkner’s sentences and paragraphs were long and expansive but also elicited emotion. Much of what made these authors famous could be attributed to voice. If I covered the titles and author’s name and asked you to choose which novels Hemingway wrote and which ones Faulkner wrote, you could spot them within seconds.
Every notable writer has a distinct style. You can expect lyrical prose from Toni Morrison and Pat Conroy. Lee Child’s sentences are short and crisp. Jonathan Franzen may use fifty words or more in one sentence. Anne Rice’s novels have an abundance of exclamation points. Other authors consider them melodramatic and won’t use them.
I have known published novelists to consciously change their voices when they’re writing different genres, but usually they feel more comfortable with a specific one and most of their novels reflect that. A good of example of that is John D. Macdonald's novel, Condominium, which has a very different style than his extensive Travis McGee series.
Each year, writers compete in contests requiring them to imitate a famous author. The results are usually more humorous than authentic but they show the power of voice. Agents and editors are always looking for “a fresh, strong voice,” one that pops out in a stack of manuscripts.
It’s such a significant attribute that, as an instructor, I am cautious about changing a student’s natural inclinations. I’ve seen teachers try to mold students’ writing in their own style. An instructor who turns out thrillers may try to convert all his students to thriller writers even if their work tends toward literary. Voice is as innate and personal as one’s own temperament. I believe in helping students develop, not change, theirs.
So how do you find your voice? By writing.
It may take years to hone your unique way of using language. Beginners who have not yet found their voices too often produce manuscripts with varying styles, confusing the reader who becomes accustomed to one approach and is suddenly confronted with another.
Go with a style that feels comfortable. Read the books you like to read. Write the way you want to write. Ignore the critic on your shoulder and let your subconscious take over. Keep writing and, as your work matures, you’ll find the voice that belongs to no one else but you.