On ‘Voice’ in Writing

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Disclaimer first. So. I’m reluctant to pontificate on the craft of writing for a few reasons:

A) Because it’s what Contentland hacks do as opposed to putting out actual real writing.

B) By my own standards I don’t yet feel like I have proven myself enough to be an absolute authority on the business of writing powerful prose.

and

C) I slowly want to help create and inculcate a sophisticated and literary audience- that would be you lot- who can genuinely think for themselves and thus create a virtuous uplifting cycle between me and them. And I’m not sure how much talking about ‘the craft’ will help me towards that end.

But all of that being said I am beholden to you, the Premium people. Ask, they say, and you shall receive. And so the other day I was asked in our Discord about a thread on voice in writing that I put out on twitter back when I was once foolish enough to do such things.

Well, I no longer have a copy of the thread because everything written on screens and stored in a social media app/a device/in the cloud is ephemeral and on a long enough timeline it will be lost, destroyed or become otherwise irretrievable.

So in lieu of answering a question asking for clarification on a specific aspect of that lost thread, I will instead now write a new ramble on the subject of honing your voice in writing.

I hope that will suffice.

It was megaphone, microphone or someone shouting into cupped hands. And this was the first good sized picture Pinterest threw up. So here we are.

Inspiration

We are going full ‘content’ on this one. Three subheading each starting with an I, a neat logical sequence, simple teachable lessons. Sometimes the imp of the perverse on my shoulder whispers in my ear that I should knock out a good solid mainstream piece of content just to prove how easy it is. Just to beat the hacks at their own game. But then I find myself writing several long and discursive sentences without the ubiquitous page break and I realise that try as you might you can never really be anything other than yourself.

At least not for any sustained length of time.

Which brings me neatly to my first point (none of this is accidental by the way. The seemingly shambolic, off-the-cuff nature of what I do here is intentional and deliberately cultivated). Refining and mastering your own voice in writing is a process of becoming who you already are. The genius is the one most like himself, as Thelonious Monk once said.

But, as in life generally, the beginner writer doesn’t really know who he or she is. The beginner doesn’t really know what he or she is about or what he or she stands for.

So step one is to find out. Which is a question of following your intuition to soak up inspiration.

Read everything. Read based on whim. Follow rabbit holes and dig into bibliographies and back catalogues. Disregard the zeitgeist and the conventional names. Find out for yourself. Read, read, read, read, read.

Gurus will tell you that creation is better than consumption. Which shows how much they know. Creation, at least in the beginning, is a product of consumption.

In the beginning Tarantino was working in the video store watching anything and everything developing taste and an aesthetic. In the beginning Shakespeare or Jane Austen or [Insert name of canonically great writer] was in the schoolhouse or the library or the study voraciously reading everything they could get their hands on.

And in this process certain books, certain passages, certain themes end genres and styles will grab you. Because they speak to you. Because they appeal to some dormant and unspoken aspect of what is already within you.

The genius is the one most like himself.

And inspiration is the first step towards uncovering this.

Imitation

Children learn to speak via imitating the sounds of adults. Writers learn to write by imitating the writing of those authors whose work truly speaks to them.

Same principle. Same mechanism. Find inspiration and then imitate what you find so you can deconstruct and reverse engineer it. The starkest version of this comes from the practice of copywork- the literal writing out in longhand of great passages of literature. They say Hunter S Thompson copies out the entirety of The Great Garsby to see how it felt from the inside to write such a great book.

This kind of thing used to be a commonplace part of the writers self-apprenticeship. Now the only people who do copywork are copywriters who learned the technique from David Ogilvy or whoever it was.

Say what you want about the guys who write ad-copy for a living, at least they take their craft seriously.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

The point is through voracious reading and consumption of the things that speak to you, you will develop and aesthetic. You will develop killer taste. And then you can start stealing from that, imitating that, working to incorporate that into your own prose.

A concrete example. Say you start seriously reading and discover that you are drawn to crime fiction. Then suppose you explore that genre and discover George V Higgins. The dialogue speaks to you. It sounds like real people grousing, BSing and going around in circles yet somehow it is stylised and entertaining and keeps you turning the page. It makes the characters real. Very little description is needed when the dialogue is so good.

So that’s the way to go for you. Imitate that idea in your own accent, with your own local dialect and idiom. See what you learn, see if you can make it work.

Through this process you will build up a unique collection of influences all of which speak to you. No two sets of influences will ever be quite the same as another. Because it is all filtered through you. Via purposeful inspiration and imitation you become unique. Just as how the imitating child does not end up sounding like an exact copy of their parents.

Iteration

Final step. The third and final I. Iteration. Which is to say practice and putting things out in to the world so you can get feedback. The consumption and creation cycle becomes a loop just as the creation and audience feedback cycle becomes a loop.

In my experience the audience most resonate with what is the closest expression of your true self. They can sense it somehow, they have a nose for it. People know the real thing when they encounter it, and they can sense fakery and pandering and going through the motions too. And they will tell you, in so many words.

This is invaluable.

With time and practice and further revolutions through the virtuous feedback loops you will get closer and closer to your own voice and style. The genius is the one most like himself.

And maybe if you get good enough and stick around for long enough people will start to copy your moves and your techniques and your now unique style.

And so it goes. On and on and down through the generations.

I hope that makes sense. And I hope that helps.

Until next time (which will be Sunday as usual)

Live Well,

Tom.

y.at/ ✍️📖🍾🎉


So there you go. I hope you enjoyed that. I practice my own advice and so this itself was an example of an iteration in the attempt to get closer to my own true writing voice, subject matter and audience.

If you enjoyed it let me know, and pass it on if you know of anyone who might benefit from it. Feedback is a vital part of the process, even though it can sting sometimes.

Cheers.

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