Agent Donald Maass, author of The Fire in Fiction, elaborates:
“By voice, I think they [agents] mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author that is like no other. An original. A standout. … To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free…Your voice is your self in the story.”
It sounds easy enough: be yourself. But Maass admits that voice is a notoriously fuzzy concept, one that embraces everything from style to sensibility to purpose.
The terms voice and style may have once been almost synonymous, but in modern usage they’re more distinct. Style feels deliberate, something to be honed and shaped. We speak of it analytically, mostly from a reader’s perspective. Voice, on the other hand, feels organic. As readers, we’re more likely to appreciate than to analyze it. As writers, we discover it, unlock it, free it.
When it comes to voice, there’s plenty to unlearn from years of trying to sound like the teacher or sound like the book. Even after we’ve committed ourselves to the creative process, we fall into the academic habit of connecting dots for the reader, a sure voice-killer if ever there was one.
“My beginning students never write better than when responding to an in-class assignment so challenging that it leaves no room for stylistic self-consciousness,” says Adam Sexton, author of The Master Class in Fiction Writing. “So try to be yourself when you write. Focus on the story you want to tell, and tell that story as quickly and naturally as possible. Then go back and analyze, evaluate, improve.”
Grace Paley discovered her stylistic self-consciousness when a high school teacher questioned her stilted use of words like trousers and subaltern in her poems. Paley admits it was only when she began writing short stories that she was able to let go of such language. “When I was able to get into somebody else’s voice, when I was able to speak in other’s people’s voice, I found my own,” she says.
Author Jayne Anne Phillips, professor of English, Rutgers-Newark MFA program, echoes the importance of voice in the narrative form. “I don’t work with ideas, which for me would limit the material,” she says. “Voice itself has no limitations. I work by ear, in a sense, in that I hear the voice, follow the voice into the narrative…For me, voice establishes the world of the novel and begins to hint at a kind of chimera of meaning.”
Voice is easy to recognize. Watch for it as you read. Compelling voice sounds more natural than artificial. In your own work, play with voice on the page. Switch it up, depending on your audience and your purpose. Trying out other voices is paradoxically one of the best ways to develop your own. Experiment with point of view, narrative distance, and narrative intelligence, all of which affect voice. Keep in mind that voice develops both consciously and subconsciously. Be patient. Voice matures over time.
Attend to voice when you revise. Boot out jargon, clichés, and weak words. Reject parts that sound unnatural, language that seem to be trying too hard. Find where the piece first takes off, gets its legs, finds its rhythm. Could you start there? Can you rewrite other sections to match the strongest passages?