Voice and Style: How to be Unique in a Sea of Storytellers
By Shannon Leigh Rivera
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
I have heard criticisms of my work and others long enough to have created a list of things that every writer will hear over their lifetime. The standard ‘editors’ comments of- don’t use modifiers, show don’t tell, don’t use gerunds, don’t start sentences with ‘but’, don’t overstate, overwrite, over describe. . . and on and on. At this point, I am sure that I could create the master list of grievances that ‘editors’ have with ‘amateur’ and professional writers alike. Most of these ‘complaints’ are what editors would call grammatical style issues. The reason they get on people is because they believe that the way sentences read must be uniform, otherwise the writing is trash. As an organized person, I understand the logic in the editors processes. Everything flows well from point A to point B and we feel happy about it. And yet, as a student of literature and writing, I also understand the lunacy of the editor’s world. There is a coldness, a harshness, about wanting to take the artist through the wringer until they are ‘perfected’ through the process of professional editing. Kind of like the star machine in Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, editors look to ensure uniformity. Efficiency. Consistency. Homogeneousness. I.E.- Let’s make everyone sound the same so that whatever book you pick up and read, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the authors.
Boring? You bet ya!
Now look, I am not saying that it isn’t necessary for editors to pick apart poor grammar. I am not saying that we don’t need to watch for wordiness. I am not even implying that authors shouldn’t take care to overuse certain verb forms or sentences structures. Writers need editors like athletes need personal trainers. They help us improve our talents. Instead, what I am saying is that in a sea of storytellers, finding both your own voice and style is not only important, it is crucial, and that often times an editor, especially a poor one, will attempt to wrangle your style and voice into a box to fit a pre-fabricated style /voice that has proven to be the ‘norm’ (i.e.- popular and contrived.) But (oh my gosh, I broke a cardinal rule here), isn’t the point to writing to create a unique piece of literary work that is YOUR OWN? Your own voice. Your own style. Your own thoughts, words, imagination???? If we are all so busy being edited the same, how can we set ourselves apart? Do you think Picasso or Monet or Pollack or Warhol would be remembered for painting just as everyone else did? Didn’t their wiliness to paint outside the lines, literally and figuratively, set them apart from every other cookie-cutter artist in the world? I am sure the establishment was quick to shoot down their ‘art’ as trash and their styles mocked or ridiculed when they first came on the scene. When you decide to be avant-garde, chances are that you will make many enemies. People hate change. They like things how they like them. It doesn’t matter if it is painting or storytelling. And yet if we had to imagine the world without those trailblazers, we would have to admit it would be a less colorful, less beautiful, less imaginative one that it was with them.
So what are we to do with the clear conundrum before us? My point is simple. Write your way. Enjoy your voice, your style, and your stories. Don’t fold under the editor’s push to be just like every other ‘storyteller’. Be unique. Be you. Yes, yes, you need to follow grammar rules to a certain extent. Yes, you need to understand the basic mechanics of writing. I say, learn the rules first so that you know how and when to break them. Rules are fun but they are stiff. Boring. Repetitive. The writing that smashes the glass ceilings of sameness is the writing that is free from the restrictions of uniformity. It is created by those who know their voice and style and refuse to alter it for others who can’t see their vision. In a world where every sentence written is the same as or nearly the same as a sentence that has already been written, how can you set yourself apart? How can you be unique in a time when we have heard the same story told over and over, just with different characters and in different settings? My friend, there is only one you. One you that will be here only once. Now is your chance to tell stories the way that only YOU CAN! Listen to your inner voice. Let the words flow on paper. Channel that inner turmoil or passion or joy and paint that word canvas without restraint. Don’t settle for edits that change your voice and style. Be a creative tree that can bend when it needs to but otherwise is able to stand through the storms of complaint and ridicule.
“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.” —John Updike
Voice is how you say something, the words you choose to write with for example. Style is the road in which you use to say it, descriptive or to the point for example. You need to know both, to hone both, in order to improve your writing and to make yourself stand out from other writers.
My Top 10 Exercises for Improving Voice and Style
Write down a memory. Think about something that has happened to you and write it down exactly as you would explain it to a friend. Then, rewrite it with some fictional elements. This is the beginning of you recognize your own voice. This is helpful for 1st person POV (point of view).
Craft character sketches. This exercise is helpful to give characters unique voices. Write out a short dialogue for each character as if they would be acting on a stage in front of you. This will help you learn to develop voice for characters other than a narrator in a story and is especially helpful for 3rd person POV.
Listen to others. Go somewhere and listen to conversations, real ones not ones on television shows. Listen to how people talk to each other. Interact. Listen to rhythm and pacing in words. “Capture that reality around you” (Goldberg)**. SOmeone said that writing is 90% listening. Listen improves voice, especially with 3rd person POV writing.
Listen to Dialects and Accents. Television is a good place for this if you can’t travel but try to find authentic accents/dialects rather than acting. Take note of the difference in rhythms and pacing in speech. This should help you when crafting characters with unique voices. (word of caution- be very careful when writing accents and dialects for characters- this takes a lot of practice to not sound, well, horrible.)
Write more non-fiction. Fiction writers might gaff at this, but learning to write more non-fiction works- reports, essays, letters to the editors, blog posts, etc.- is helpful for you in learning to identify your voice.
Write a short story -bare bones. Take out descriptors and just tell action. What are your word choices? How do you explain in the simplest terms? When you want to use modifiers, use nouns and verbs instead. This is a great exercise for improving style.
Rewrite that bare-bones story with descriptors. Use as many as you can without being ridiculous. Then add more. Listen to the rhythm of the story with these words and decide what sounds good and what sounds like overkill. Find the places where pacing is slowed because of descriptors. Notice where there was an improvement with them. This will help you redefine your style.
Write Flash Fiction and Poetry. I am not a poet nor do I love flash fiction (a story of less than 500 words), and yet both of these types of writing have helped me improve my style. They taught me ‘economy of word’ and the importance of movement. Practice telling a story in 500 words or less. Also, practice writing several types of poetry. Notice how the words feel on the page. Their weight. Their movement. Their energy. This is an exercise meant to help you ‘hear’ your style.
Tell a story in one sentence. Economy of language is the easiest way to help define style. This will help you learn to choose your words carefully which will in turn show weaknesses in your writing. Every story can be told in one sentence, the rest is fluff.
Write a Dialogue with and without attributives. Make sure you over explain and then under explain. Listen to how the conversation is altered in both instances. (Example of over-explanation- she huffed exasperatedly, he said angrily, she screamed, he cajoled, etc.) Balance and clarity is the essence of individual style. If you do your style right, your dialogue will sound unique to you.
As always, read your work out loud and then have someone else read it. These exercises are meant to help you define your voice and style. There is no ‘right way’ to do everything. If you read Faulkner and Hemingway, their stories couldn’t be more different. And yet, each of these writers started from a place of knowledge of the English language. They were comfortable with the basics before they found their own paths. Knowing yourself, your voice and your style, comes through practice, patience, and persistence. It also is revealed in confidence, not self-doubt. Believe in yourself, in your writing, and know that, in time, a more refined sense of style and voice will find its way onto paper.
**Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Expanded ed. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2005. Print.