October 21, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh
No, you’re not hallucinating, I really have returned to my Tuesday blog space. No, I did not forget that I was in the middle of a blog series on voice; I simply chose to be in Ireland the last two Tuesdays instead of here writing blogs on voice, and of course I would have gladly devoted some of my precious vacation time to blogging instead of gazing at those boring ol’ Cliffs of Moher, but wouldn’t you know it, Ireland hasn’t installed the Internet yet, so I couldn’t. Very sad. But happily, I’m back in the USA where the Internet is alive and well and so today I’m resuming my blog series on how to define, identify, and develop your voice as a writer. And Ireland was lovely, thanks for asking.
In looking at how word choice affects/reflects an author’s voice, the biggest question you should be asking is, are your words a fit for your voice? It’s natural for a writer starting out to be a bit self-conscious of his words on the page, much like someone at a new job or on a first date is hyper-aware of how he’s coming across to others. You might tend to check and re-check your responses in order to be sure you’re making the impression you want to make, you’re probably going to dress with a little more care than you ordinarily would in the hopes of coming across the way you want to, and you might find yourself agreeing with opinions or laughing politely at jokes that you don’t actually identify with, all in the interest of being perceived as a pleasant, reasonable person, regardless of what kind of lunatic you actually are.
Around your own friends and family, however, the filters slip, and you’re much less conscious of the image you’re projecting; instead, your actions and words and demeanor reflect your actual views and personality much more faithfully. This version of you might not be as politically correct or as polished as the version that your new colleagues or your blind date see, but it’s much more genuine, and while not everyone is going to love the “real” version of you, the people who WILL like you for who you are will have a much easier time recognizing what makes you unique.
In the same way, newer writers can sometimes write with a consciousness that someone– an agent, a peer group, an editor– is going to read their work that can sabotage or smother the writer’s true personality coming out on the page, especially where word choice is concerned. Authors may choose words to make them come across as more intellectual or more relevant when they should instead be primarily concerned with getting their stories on the page with as much honesty and authenticity as possible, and the words they choose in their attempts to project rather than reveal themselves can be extremely distracting to the reader and create distance between the reader and an author who comes across as inauthentic or faceless.
For example, I often read manuscripts in which it would appear that the author has painstakingly consulted a thesaurus for each and every word on the page, with the result that their meaning, and the heart of the author’s story, is almost completely obscured. If you aren’t using long, complex words naturally, they’re going to be jarring to the reader when we come up against them strewn awkwardly along your story. If your voice/writing style is very informal, more formal language is going to stick out. Your words are those that come fairly naturally to you, not those you choose because you want to sound more “writer-y” or intellectual. The reverse is also true; if your writing style is naturally very cerebral or formal, conscious decisions to try and “dumb down” your word choice or syntax aren’t going to ring true, and prevent the reader who would love your natural voice and word choice from getting a clear picture of that voice.
Consider also the audience that will most likely be reading your book. If you’re writing for children, you’re going to make difference word choices than if you were writing for adults, and vice-versa. If you’re writing a legal thriller that will most likely be read by white-collar men from the baby boomer generation, you’re going to make different choices than if you’re writing chick lit that will most likely be read by 30-something moms.
You also need to consider whether your words are a fit for the time period you’re writing in. If modern slang isn’t a fit for an otherwise very formal historical setting and characters, it’s going to be distracting to the reader when you choose to use it, and if your 1940s characters speak with mostly modern syntax and vocabulary because that’s the voice you naturally write in, period-appropriate slang will probably feel very conspicuous. Your story and your writing are king. Let those elements drive your word choice instead of conscious efforts to be historically accurate or intellectual or accessible or age-appropriate.
Sometimes when you examine your word choice and start to recognize the patterns that naturally occur in your writing, you come to the realization that you haven’t written the book you thought you had, and find yourself reexamining the genre or age group you write for. You may start out thinking you’re writing YA but discover after the fact that your voice is naturally much better suited to an older reader, or you may think you’ve written a thriller but what you’ve really written is romantic suspense. Obviously, there are some other factors in genre-identification, but word choice and the way it reveals your natural voice is a big part of it.
I’ve seen dozens of projects that were pitched as once thing but that were really a much better fit, voice-wise, for different genre or age group– picture book writers whose word choices and syntax were much better suited for middle-grade, middle-grade authors who were actually writing easy-readers, adult fantasy novels that were a perfect fit for a YA readership, historical fiction with a great voice that was really a better fit for contemporary fiction– the list goes on. I know it seems overwhelming to consider that the genre or readership you’ve worked towards and identified with might not be the best fit for your voice/writing style, but you’ll meet with a lot less resistance on your writing path, long-term, if you figure out where your strengths and the market align, rather than trying to apply your strengths to an area of the market where they’re not the greatest fit.
It’s important, in these discussions on voice, that you don’t let some of the finer points of voice distract you from the big picture; that is, that voice is the personality of the author as revealed through the writing. The takeaway from a discussion about word choice should not be to go back and second-guess each of your word choices and agonize over every adjective use, but to help you to notice the word choice patterns you naturally fall into as a writer and get you started thinking about how those patterns and habits can help you zero in on your unique voice and the unique audience you’re writing for.