Do You Have a Voice?
If you have ever looked for a copyeditor for your written work, you've likely seen editors refer to "maintaining the author's voice." But just what is that? Do you have one? If not, how does one get it? And how does a copyeditor maintain it while making countless corrections on a manuscript?
Here are some ways "voice" has been described:
*A writer's personality
*Being "yourself" on the page
*How you tell the story
Your voice must be exclusive (to you) and authentic, and must set you apart from other writer's voices. The things you know and how you know them; the unique way you describe them; the thoughts and feelings behind your words; your imagination—you must become adept at connecting with and revealing your inner self. This is often the first thing an agent or publisher will look for.
Paul Gallico, in his 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer, wrote: "It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader." This quote and its variations has been around a long time. I like it because it illuminates a factor that many writers don't realize—that humans are much more alike than different. We like to find someone we can relate to, someone who understands us, and perhaps, if we can become our book's protagonist for awhile, we might come away enriched from the experience of common thoughts, feelings, and actions. We are looking for new ways to see our situations; new ways to respond to outside forces; and we want to know that there are answers in the world—encouragement, hope, even solutions—for the messes people have made and will make in the future. After all, our protagonist has been in the worst place imaginable, and they managed to escape and secure a happy ending.
What inhibits our voice? The rules. Many writing coaches and experts will tell you that a first draft is NOT the place to censor your voice. It is not the place to slow down, get out of your writing zone, go back and rewrite sentences, mess with punctuation, look every word choice up in the Thesaurus to make sure "woebegone" is a better choice than "decrepit," and to fact-check or deepen your research. After your first draft is finished, you will spend much time self-editing. That is the time and place to address all those items.
What can you do to develop your voice?
1) Practice "free writing," or stream of consciousness writing. Write whatever comes to mind. Do this often.
2) Read your writing out loud or use a text-to-speech program. If you use Scrivener, it has a speech function within it.
3) Read the work of others who have a strong voice, breaking down a particularly good passage and seeing why it works. Sometimes it's helpful to write the passage out longhand.
4) Read your writing out loud to someone else. There is no better way to hear your words as someone else hears them.
5) Try to mimic the voice of a writer you admire, if only to get a feel for what voice is.
So what is the editor's role in all this?
While an editor cannot find your voice for you, a good editor knows when to leave your unique way of writing alone. Voice is seen in dialogue, in narrative, and in style. It is visible in sentence structure, plot structure, and character description. It can even be seen in world building. In its simplest definition, it is the way you use words to tell a story. Editors can reorganize an ungrammatical sentence that slows a reader down and change it, maintaining an author's voice. They know the importance of never using the same word twice in close proximity, as well as the technique of repeating a word or phrase intentionally. They may even make a suggestion as to how you could give a passage more "punch." Editors know which rules are important and which can be broken. They know what will catch an agent's eye and what will cause them to file your story where it won't be seen again. Although a copyeditor cannot guarantee success, they can get you much closer to the mark, and if you are planning to self-publish your material, they can save your reputation and advance your career by helping you publish quality.
Start with a basic manuscript critique if you need feedback on your story's development.
A developmental/comprehensive/substantive edit will help you with story structure and ensure you've developed a story that works.
A copyedit will look at grammar, punctuation, inconsistencies, spelling, formatting, clarity, and more, at the sentence level.
A proofread is the final stage and will catch every final misspelling and missing punctuation mark and more that slipped through. It is the last step before publication.
For good books on a writer's voice, check out these titles:
"Voice in Writing: Developing a Unique Writing Voice," Cris Freese, Writer's Digest, Sept. 12, 2013
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction, by Frank and Wall
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Kidder and Todd