I have always struggled with voice. In high school, the struggle went like this:
- Reading Grapes of Wrath? Everything I write that week sounds like Grapes of Wrath.
- Reading The Great Gatsby? Everything I write that week sounds like The Great Gatsby. And includes a mint julep.
- Reading Crime & Punishment? I don’t write at all those two weeks because Russian Lit just kills me.
- Reading Stephen King in my free time? I learned how to spell harbinger real well. Real well indeed.
Then, in college, the struggle became:
- I am pretty good at writing fanfiction in the Douglas Adams voice.
- That’s pretty much it.
- Everything I write contains the phrases “almost, but not quite ___” or “almost, but not entirely unlike ___.”
My problem is that I’ve learned how to write by sponging up whatever I happen to be reading at the time, and the result is I am still a bit uncertain of my own voice. What I do know is that it tends to be very direct, often rather snarky, and consecutive sentences never start or end with the same word because that drives me up the wall.
Some of this I’ve learned from how I edit other people’s work. I am the nitpicker who will go through the page and circle every instance of a repeated word in a paragraph or page, and note the total count in the margin just in case I hadn’t already made my point. I am the nitpicker who will not only notice that every sentence has the same length and structure, but (a) point it out, (b) state whether or not it seems like you did it on purpose, and (c) start scribbling in examples of how you might rearrange them.
I’ve never been quite sure how anyone feels about my writing critiques, but personally I can’t stand getting critiques back with no notes throughout and a bunch of vague comments at the end. If you didn’t think something worked I want you to show me where during the text you had that thought, and I try to do that when I edit.
My voice as an editor has helped inform me a bit more about my voice as a writer, although I have to take this with a grain of salt. If I listen to my editor-voice too much I get distracted by rewriting things I haven’t even finished writing in the first place. Similarly, I can queue up audiobooks to listen to in the car but have to keep a wary eye out for signs that the book of the week is taking over.
It helps when I pick the audiobooks to suit what I’m writing, rather than the other way around.
And heaven help me if I’m typing up something I’ve written longhand, because unlike the self-restraint described in this post over at The Caffeinated Writer I can’t help trying to fix it as I go! Approximately halfway through whatever I still have written down has somehow become completely irrelevant and I no longer have a complete draft.