Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lift Every Voice: In Search of the Writer's Voice

In the Writing for the Media course I teach, we use the classic ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser as our main text. To anyone who truly cares about the art and the craft of writing, it's a must read.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is "The Sound of Your Voice." Zinsser begins the chapter by discussing a time in which he was writing a book on baseball and a book on jazz. When doing so, he didn't think to write either book using "baseball English" or "jazz English"; his goal was to use HIS English, HIS voice.

In writing, our voice, our style of writing is what keeps us able to not only write, but also to SELL and to continue to sell. People are attracted to the types of stories that authors write and the way in which the authors write them. Toni Morrison is not famous because of her name, but because of the topics and themes that she is drawn to and how her unique style of writing attacks those topics and themes. Same for Mary Higgins Clark. Same for Nicholas Sparks. Same for Carly Phillips. Same for...Shakespeare.

How can writers find their voice?

Writers can identify what they're interested in writing, for one. What genres are you interested in? What themes, ideas do you typically explore in your works? What propels you to write what you do? Knowing these things can help propel you to a second step...

Writers can identify authors who exemplify the type of writing they wish to pursue. Who are the top authors in your favorite writing genres? What authors seem to tackle your themes and ideas? Which of these authors are SUCCESSFUL at writing these types of books? Identify those authors and...

Read these authors' works and look at the things that make these authors good at what they do as writers. Examine how writers are able to write in simple, yet complex ways that reach the readers' hearts and that don't condescend to them. See how they avoid clich├ęs. Listen to their words; see how they write using their EARS; a sentence, with the right words, can sound EXACTLY how a writer wants the reader to feel. See their conciseness, their freshness in word usage; as Zinsser states, "Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength, and precision" (235).

Emulate these writers; this doesn't mean steal their wording – it means use their techniques to hone your craft. If you love Morrison for her poetic, lyrical command of the language, attempt to do it in your writing. If you're a fan of Ernest Gaines and his ability to write in a conversational, down South way that doesn't obliterate the language nor condescend to the reader, then practice that style in your writing. Remember, you're not stealing their ideas or words: poetic writing, conversational writing, lyrical writing have been around since the first words were written. You're embracing the styles they utilize to create their works, and you're applying those styles to your writing and making them your own.

Some people don't want to emulate writers because they want to be their OWN writer; they don't want to copy from someone else. I can understand that; however, I also believe that in the end, we all have embraced a model to emulate. Zinsser writes that Bach and Picasso didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste in your ear-their attitude toward language. Don't worry that by imitating them you'll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become. (235-136)

I can easily look back and see how the voice I have today is formed through the visions I saw and read in some of my favorite writers - to include Bernice McFadden, Morrison, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf. My most current writing voice reflects not only my favorite authors but also my favorite TV programs, and how they capture pacing, beat, and rhythm in their precise dialogue and scene development - Psych, Monk, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Sex and the City (I still watch my DVDs), newer Lifetime movies, etc. to name a few. Am I the writers of these books, these TV programs? Not in the least. I am me, and the more I write, the more I leave those who helped created me and strengthen the voice that I've been birthed into.

Work Cited

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 30th Anniversary Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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  1. Great description. I had someone asking me about voice the other day -- a high school student who said, "What do you call that style that an author uses when they're writing something?" With further discussion, it turned out she was talking about voice. Now that she's recognized it, perhaps she can see her own and begin to develop it. This article may help with that. :-)

  2. Really nice post, Shon. You made some excellent points. I, too, follow the pacing etc of television shows and try to incorporate that into my writing.

  3. I thought I left a comment here, weird. Thanks for the comments, ladies, :-)

    Voice is one of those things my students constantly ask about, and it's not until they "see" it in their writing do they go AH, I GET IT.

    There is no clear-cut answer to how to get voice, but if you open yourself up to your writing, you'll find it.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.