When people speak they produce many different signals that the audience can interpret–facial expressions, gestures, and timbre of voice can add to the meaning of the words, or reverse them. For example, a person saying “Good job!” in a lusty voice with the right corner of his lips raised in a sneer of disdain means that he thinks you’ve done anything but a good job. However, when we write, we only offer one stimulus–words on the page.
Your style of grammar, tone, and inflection, which make up your voice when you are speaking out loud, offer so many modes of expression that must be converted to words when writing. When I hear people say creating a “voice” in writing means simply writing like you speak, I cringe. Only putting down the words you say in print is a pale, tasteless version of what needs to be told. However, writing done that way still has a voice; all writing does, but not necessarily a interesting voice.
I recall a time recently when I was reading aloud one of the submissions to a creative writing group. One of the participants asked, “Did John write that? I can recognize his voice.” She assured us. John beamed with pride.
Although there are things that marred his style, like occasional trite phrases and repeating words too frequently, John had achieved one of the goals of a quality voice in writing–distinctiveness. A combination of simplicity with occasional irony made his writing voice somewhat unique.
Of course originality is not the only thing to strive for. Writing can be different from anything you have ever seen, but if it simply nonsense you will not stick to reading that author very long. So another goal of a quality voice is a recognizable structure–a manner or style of communicating in which the elements of voice work together. This is a matter or balance between ordinary and unique language patterns. If every sentence is a completely different syntax, such a lack of flow would make it jarring and discomforting to read.
People with good intentions often advise the new author to cut our adverbs ruthlessly for the sake of economy in writing. But that doesn’t always work. Overuse of a single technique, such as describing all actions with adverbs can become monotonous, but then so can eliminating them completely. Essentially writing with an interesting voice requires the understand of balance in creativity. It is like the variation on a theme in music; enough of the melody is there that you can hear it, even though the instrumentation and tempo changes.
Finally voice needs to have something appealing to the audience of readers–what I would refer to as beauty, a word which is probably even harder to define than voice.
Artwork by S.L. Listman