Photo: Darwin Vegher on Unsplash
We all have that one novel we think has prose worth worshiping or a poem with stanzas unmatched by any other. This could be the poignant words of Virginia Woolf, the straight-forward punch of Ernest Hemingway, or the masterful world-building of Renée Ahdieh. Regardless of whichever work of literature you hold as a marker of the highest standard, it has had a lasting impact on your worldview, and just as powerful of an effect on how you view writing. We read it, we absorbed it, and now every time our fingers tap the keyboard we strive to emulate it. Conscious or not, I feel confident in saying that every writer has done this at some point in their career. We have all tried to create something as impactful that contains perfect artistry like the work we admire, but in the end, we are left with a watered-down, soggy piece that would fall apart if compared to the original.
And can you blame writers for trying? After all, one of the constantly-repeated mantras of writing is, “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” This was originally said by acclaimed screenplay writer, Aaron Sorkin. Well, actually, he stole the quote. T.S. Elliot once said, many years before, “Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.” But, even before T.S. Elliot stumbled upon that revelation, François Voltaire had remarked, “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.”
Looking at the difference between these quotes is a perfect way to understand voice and inspiration. While you should not steal as plainly as Sorkin did from Elliot, you can still hear the screenwriter's voice and style in word choice and tone. Another writers’ voice is not something you can steal with authenticity. There is a balance between inspiration and personal discovery that you can use to help you find your unique voice and stop sounding like a bad parody of the New York Times Bestseller list.
Remember, there are many organic ways to find a style that fits your writing. This is just one helpful method that you can use to uncover your voice.
Step 1: Collect a Sample
The first step in this process can be the trickiest for a lot of writers because it requires you to stop thinking. Well, it is probably helpful to keep a few thoughts in your head for this exercise, but you have to quiet all the nagging voices in your head about how ‘good’ writing is supposed to sound or which words are academic or anything about writing. Once your head is fully clear, you just write for ten minutes. You can set a timer, or just let yourself ramble on and on for as long as you like. Whatever you choose to write about is up to you, though I do recommend to work outside of your current project. You want this to be as free and as messy as possible, so don’t let the pressure of a work in progress get in the way of that.
Once you’ve completed your free-write, read it over. As you do, have a pen handy so that you can underline anything that sticks out as something intriguing. It can be the choice of a certain verb, a particularly vivid description, or the way you employed dialogue. Whatever you find, take note of it. Make a list of all the aspects within your natural writing style that you would like to keep, or implement more into your writing. And just like that, you’ve already got a voice in the works!
Step 2: Time to Steal
Now, it is finally time to indulge yourself and delve into the works of all your favorite writers. Try to recall what parts of their writing you gravitated toward. Did their use of dialogue bring you to tears (in a good way)? Did they craft images you’ll never forget? After you have a list of techniques and language you adore, mix and match your options. Now is the time to be creative and mix literary devices you would’ve never considered to work together. Take syntax from one, structure from another, descriptions from the classics, personification from the romantics.
Use whatever combination you chose to fill in any of the gaps you identified in your natural style. Be careful, though, you want to do this sparingly. If not, your work will read less as a unique voice influenced by other famous works and more like a style-Frankenstein. Do not just pick an aspect that you think is academic and writerly, consider what tools are best for crafting your story.
Step 3: Blend!
Now that you have identified aspects of your own writing that you adore and of inspiring writers’ work that you admire, it’s time to blend the two through writing. I would recommend doing another burst of free-writing, this time being conscious in your word choice and how different elements of style impact the tone of your writing. Still, don’t put too much thought into it. Your voice should still sound natural and like a reflection of you. The ‘stolen’ literary devices you included should only elevate your work to a level you prefer.
And it may not work out the first time. Maybe you’re struggling with one of the devices you chose, or one of them doesn’t suit the project. That’s alright, you can drop that aspect or maybe even pick a new one. Or, you may even discover that some of the things you loved about other works have been present in your own voice all along. With each trial and error or trial and success, you gain more control and understanding of your voice as a writer.
Finding your voice takes time, patience, and understanding. A single run-through of this exercise may only be the start of your journey. But don’t get discouraged or intimidated. Remember that regardless of whether you like your current writing style or not, you already have one! It is never going to go away; it can only grow stronger.