: How to dig out your unique writer’s voice

The one thing every agent and editor is looking for is “a fresh, distinctive voice.” But everything that’s written, no matter how amateurish, has a voice. What agents and editors are really looking for is a strong, professional voice that stands out from the crowd. Maybe some writers are born with a great voice, like natural singers, but most people have to develop it. And having recently pulled a novel I wrote almost twenty years ago out of the trunk for my publisher, I learned a lot about how I finally managed to develop my own writer’s voice. Sure, in part it’s a matter of more active verbs, more vivid and precise language—but mostly, I think it’s a matter of eradicating the garbage words that smother the good stuff!

Version A (twenty years ago):

The wrinkled face held nothing but kindness and sorrow, but Jeriah suddenly became aware that he had no sword and his right arm was all but useless. If he’d intended some threat to the tinker, he’d have been helpless to carry it out. A chill of wariness brushed him. This man was no fool. But he intended no threat, so it didn’t matter.

“It’s about Tobin, my brother.” He was on his knees, leaning forward in his earnestness. “He followed the sorceress into the Otherworld and I have to get him back.”

The whole story tumbled out…well almost the whole story.

“So you see, I have to get in touch with the goblins if I’m to have a chance of finding them in the Otherworld,” he finished.

The tinker frowned thoughtfully at him. “Seems to me, lad, that your brother went of his own will. Are you right—”

“But he didn’t know he’d die! He didn’t even know he couldn’t return, he can’t have known it. He promised, he swore to me that he’d come back when I promised him…”

The tinker cocked a curious brow and waited.

“…to stay out of trouble,” Jeriah finished weakly.

Todder Yon didn’t laugh, but Jeriah could see it took an effort.

“He broke his promise first,” said Jeriah with dignity. “That frees me from mine. Besides, it’s hardly my fault I was attacked!”

The tinker laughed.

Version B (now):

The wrinkled face held only kindness and sorrow, but Jeriah suddenly became aware that he had no sword, and his right arm was all but useless. If he had intended harm, he’d have been helpless to pursue it. A chill of wariness brushed him. This man was no fool.

“It’s about Tobin, my brother.” Jeriah rose to his knees, leaning forward despite a twinge of pain from the movement. “He followed the sorceress into the Otherworld, and I have to get him back.”

The whole story tumbled out. Almost the whole story.

“So you see, I have to get in touch with the goblins in order to have any chance of finding them in the Otherworld,” he finished.

The tinker frowned. “Seems to me, lad, that your brother went of his own will.”

“He didn’t know he’d die! He didn’t even know he couldn’t return. He promised, he swore, that he’d come back, and I promised him…”

The tinker cocked a curious brow and waited.

“…to stay out of trouble,” Jeriah finished weakly.

The tinker’s lips twitched.

“He broke his promise first,” said Jeriah with dignity. “That frees me from mine. Besides, it’s not my fault I was attacked!”

Todder Yon gave up and laughed.

Hear the difference? Let me take it a step further and demo my process paragraph by paragraph, underlining the awkward language I changed then showing the finished version.

The wrinkled face held  nothing but kindness and sorrow, but Jeriah suddenly became aware that he had no sword and his right arm was all but useless. If he’d intended some threat to the tinker, he’d have been helpless to carry it out. A chill of wariness brushed him. This man was no fool. But he intended no threat, so it didn’t matter.

~

The wrinkled face held only kindness and sorrow, but Jeriah suddenly became aware that he had no sword, and his right arm was all but useless. If he had intended harm, he’d have been helpless to pursue it. A chill of wariness brushed him. This man was no fool.

~~~~

 “It’s about Tobin, my brother.” He was on his knees, leaning forward in his earnestness. “He followed the sorceress into the Otherworld and I have to get him back.”

The whole story tumbled out, well almost the whole story.

~

“It’s about Tobin, my brother.” Jeriah rose to his knees, leaning forward despite a twinge of pain from the movement. “He followed the sorceress into the Otherworld, and I have to get him back

The whole story tumbled out. Almost the whole story.

~~~~

“So you see, I have to get in touch with the goblins if I’m to have a chance of finding them in the Otherworld,” he finished.

The tinker frowned thoughtfully at him. “Seems to me, lad, that your brother went of his own will. Are you right—

~

“So you see, I have to get in touch with the goblins in order to have any chance of finding them in the Otherworld,” he finished.

The tinker frowned. “Seems to me, lad, that your brother went of his own will.”

~~~~

But he didn’t know he’d die! He didn’t even know he couldn’t return, he can’t have known it. He promised, he swore to me that he’d come back when I promised him…”

The tinker cocked a curious brow and waited.

“…to stay out of trouble,” Jeriah finished weakly.

~

“He didn’t know he’d die! He didn’t even know he couldn’t return. He promised, he swore, that he’d come back, and I promised him…”

The tinker cocked a curious brow and waited.

“…to stay out of trouble,” Jeriah finished weakly.

~~~~

Todder Yon didn’t laugh, but Jeriah could see it took an effort.

“He broke his promise first,” said Jeriah with dignity. “That frees me from mine. Besides, it’s hardly my fault I was attacked!”

The tinker laughed.

~

The tinker’s lips twitched.

“He broke his promise first,” said Jeriah with dignity. “That frees me from mine. Besides, it’s not my fault I was attacked!”

Todder Yon gave up and laughed.

~~~~

Small changes. A word echo here. An awkward turn of phrase. Excising a bunch of words that are repetitive, or unnecessary. But see the difference they make? How much clearer and cleaner my voice is with the garbage stripped away?

There are doubtless other things involved in developing a good writing voice—things like vivid verbs, and rooting out passive construction come to mind. And I doubt you could manage it without training your ear to the rhythms and nuisances of the language.

But even the fanciest party decorations won’t show to advantage unless you pick up the clutter, vacuum and dust—and even a strong writing voice can’t shine if it’s buried in junk verbiage. Cleaning up your writing may be every bit as tedious—and much harder—than cleaning house, but if you do it readers, agents and editors will be a lot more eager to come to your next novel.

Fall 2008