As part of the series of writing tips, here’s number seven:
Be true to your own voice. Someone once told me that my voice was clean and crisp. I’m not sure what that means but I like it. Someone else told me that my style was conversational, and then a member of my writing group indicated that it might be a little too conversational. Hmmm. Have to think about that one.
To use a heavily overused cliché, “Different strokes for different folks.” I know we’re supposed to be fresh in our writing and to avoid clichés like the plague (couldn’t resist using another one), but sometimes one provides the perfect lead-in. Just this morning someone commented on Crossing the Bridge: Succeeding in a Community College and Beyond: “Drawing you in from the first page…that’s not an easy task for non-fiction but Jayne manages to make you feel like u r part of the story! That is what I love about her writing!” I really appreciated those comments, and believe me when I say that I’ve read through numerous how-to books that were too stuffy and formal for the students I know.
Let’s look at a few differences between well-known authors and their voices. Anyone who has read any of Ernest Hemingway’s books knows that his sentences are short and that his style is clean and spare. On the other hand, Pat Conroy, a contemporary Southern writer is a bit wordy (by his admission). I just opened My Reading Life to a random page and found, “Millions of Southerners lamented the crushing defeat of the Southern armies, but only one had the talent to place that elegiac sense of dissolution on the white shoulders of the most irresistible, spiderous, seditious, and wonderful of American heroines, Scarlett O’hara.” Incidentally, Conroy writes that he much admired Thomas Wolfe’s writing and goes on to say that Wolfe’s very name can induce nausea among literary critics. That’s okay by him. “They are just critics, and he is Thomas Wolfe.” And by the way, I couldn’t find a definition for spiderous, but that’s okay. He’s Conroy.
To be fair to the female writers, can there be a greater difference in voice than that of Patricia Highsmith and Tess Gerritsen? Both write about crime, but Highsmith’s look at the characters’ motives and inner turmoil are remarkable. At the same time, anyone reading Gerritsen’s work knows that this woman is familiar with a scalpel. And what about Jane Austen and Zadie Smith. All four are writers of renown, and all have totally different voices. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone’s writing quite like Ms. Smith’s. I liked NW and White Teeth because of the memorable characters and a new (but not improved) view of London.
In my writing group, I can read one sentence of a person’s manuscript and recognize the author. Same thing with my students. After reading a couple of their assignments, I know who wrote what by their styles, voices, and topics. Like Conroy said about Wolfe’s critics, that’s okay. We all have our unique voices, and as long as we abide by certain rules, why not be true to ourselves?