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, making up your voice when you are speaking out loud offer so many more 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, just not an interesting voice.
I recall a time when I read aloud a submission (not my own) to a creative writing group. One of the participants asked, “Did John write that? I can recognize his voice.” She smiled assured of her ability to sense his words, while John beamed with pride. Although things marred his style, like occasional trite phrases and repeating words too frequently, John had achieved one goal of a quality voice in writing–distinctiveness. His combination of simplicity with occasional irony made his writing style somewhat unique.
Originality is not the only thing to strive for. Writing can be different from anything you have ever read, but if it simply nonsense you will not stick to 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 work together. This is a matter of balance between ordinary and unique language patterns. This could be mixing simple and complex words, or using a sprinkling of words in an unlikely manner. But beware; if the reader has to struggle too much to comprehend, they will stop. If every sentence is a different syntax, such a lack of flow would make reading a piece like wading through muddy water, unable to determine what is beneath the surface.
People with good intentions often advise the new author to cut out adverbs ruthlessly for the sake of economy in writing. But, that may weaken a writing voice. Overuse of a single technique, such as describing all actions with adverbs can become monotonous, but so can eliminating them completely. Any recipe for creating voice should be regarded with healthy distrust. Writing in an intriguing manner requires the understanding of balance in creativity. It is comparable to a variation on a theme in music. Enough of the melody remains that you can hear it, even though the instrumentation, ornamental notes, and tempo changes.
Finally, voice needs to have something appealing to readers, what I would refer to as beauty, which is probably even harder to define than voice.
Artwork by S.L. Listman