A recent critique session raised an interesting question: How can a writer integrate elements of critiques into their work without losing their unique writing “voice?” More to the point, can a writer change things based on a critique and still have the end product read like their work and not that of the person who penned the critique? The answer: Absolutely!
A brief discussion of voice is necessary before we continue.
Voice, as it relates to creative writing, is an often misunderstood term, and for good reason. Voice has been used to define various elements of the craft. Some define first, second or third person narratives as voice; it is also applied to “passive voice” and “active voice”; then there is the unique narrative signature or style of the writer, that collection of narrative elements that signal to readers that these words are from this particular writer. This latter description of voice is the one most writers think of when they think of writing voice, or style. It’s the definition we’ll concern ourselves with here.
When we speak to someone with whom we are closely familiar, even in a velvet dark room, our spoken words tells that person who we are. They recognize our voice, having heard it many times in the past. It’s the same thing with a writer’s voice, or style; however, since the author is writing words on a page instead of speaking them aloud, it’s the way words have been put together rather than speech that tells readers who wrote those words. Bits of your personality, conversational style, personal beliefs, politics — everything that makes you you shows up in one way or another in your writing and identifies your words as your words, your voice.
It’s this arrangement and selection of words that lets readers distinguish between words written by Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck or you. If Hemingway had written “The Grapes of Wrath,” although it might have been the same story it would have been a totally different book. The same is true if King had written “A movable Feast” or Steinbeck “The Shining.” Although the stories might have remained the same stories we all know, the books would be totally different due to the switch in creative voice. It’s impossible to know whether any of them would have been nearly as successful without the unique voice of the authors who created them as we know them. Interesting to think about though!
Where does voice come from?
Virtually every book I’ve read on the subject accepts that voice is a thing that develops differently for every writer from birth through maturity. Childhood environment, family interactions, education, life experiences, favorite books and the people we’ve met all play a part in shaping our writer’s voice. Since your life was lived differently from mine and mine different from the kid next door, we each evolve a different writing voice.
Although life in general forms the foundation for our voice, there’s more to voice than simply having lived. Even before we took our first conscious step to write a piece of fiction, we had a way of writing. Some of us wrote long, flowery passages; others composed factual narratives; still others wrote mostly dialogue. It’s what we felt most comfortable doing. As we matured, read more, wrote more, our comfort zone began to expand to encompass new experiences as well as rules for writing whatever genre we decided to pursue. We were fine tuning our voice.
If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve no doubt developed a fairy solid voice. Writing has become like driving a car with which you are completely familiar. No need to look at the radio buttons to switch stations; the act is automatic. Even with this familiarity, however, there may still be gadgets in your car whose purpose you must discover; you must still be attentive to the road; you must still observe driving rules; you will constantly improve your driving skills; there are still new places to travel. If you’re serious about your writing, the same road to continual improvement must become an integral part of your writing routine. Voice alone doesn’t guarantee success, but your unique voice just may help you sell a manuscript one day.
Writer’s groups, classes and seminars are usually designed to help writers to improve their skills in some way. It is generally assumed that if you are a writer you already have a voice. The trouble is that many writers fail to recognize that the assistance they receive in such groups is not meant to change their voice, it is meant to shed light on various flaws. These groups seek to share elements of writing that can improve your work within your personal voice. Unfortunately, some writers believe critiques are attempts by other writers to make everyone’s writing just like theirs. This is rarely the case.
The root of this misconception lies in one simple reality: We are all unique.
When I offer a criticism of a piece of work I am writing it in my voice, as I see it. If I offer a revision idea, I am offering it in much the way I would write it if I had originated the idea, but with an eye toward what I believe the author was trying to achieve. My goal in doing so is not to say my way is the right way; it is to illustrate that there are less wordy, more vivid ways to accomplish the same goal. The idea is that each author must consider the relative merits of criticism, implement what they like and discard the rest, but do so within their own unique voice. If the critique suggests that 50 words can be cut and offers an example as to how, the author can disregard that suggestion or find ways to cut words that fits their style. Critiques are not rules (although many may cite writing rules), they are mere suggestions.
There is no such thing as a good or bad voice. Embrace yours. Nurture it. There are enough genres and stories to tell and retell to embrace virtually any writing style. But when it comes to creative criticism, remember that the goal is to improve your writing within your voice. It is essential that you remain true to your voice while constantly seeking to improve your writing.
© Bill Weiss, Writersblog — 2011