Raising Your Voice: Who speaks when you write?

By Neil Shea

To hear Mark Kramer and Susan Orlean tell it, finding your writerly voice involves a lot of self-editing.

Voice drifts through our narratives, and whether we realize it or not, readers respond to the author’s voice, drawing conclusions about his personality and even the story itself. So, says Kramer, voice should appear “like the casual walk of a tightrope walker.” Voice should seem simple and read easily, but it should carry the weight of your training, experience and authority with a subject.

To get to this sublime level of “voice” we must pare down our writing and make it clear and clean. Get rid of abstractions, unclutter the text or the meaning—and the voice—remain hidden. Intense self-editing leads to self-discovery and to a better understanding of voice.

In the search for voice, Susan Orlean recommends thinking about how you would explain an exciting or interesting story to your friends. Or read your piece aloud to divine your voice. Ask, who is speaking here? Am I writing with a patchwork voice that I picked up along the way? Some jumble of newspaper-voice mixed in with the voice of a writer I admire? Read and edit your work closely, learn to identify your crutches or gimmicks.

Voice is a tool and sometimes a trap. Thinking too much about voice pushes some writers to choose first person narratives—even when first person isn't a good fit for the story. Well done, voice gives readers a feeling of connection with the author without the need for “I”. Orlean and Kramer don’t believe writers can invent voices for themselves. It is more than words on a page. It is the subtle thing that allows us to guide and accompany our readers, even though we're not sitting next to them. That's why, Orlean says, "understanding who you are and why you're a writer is a big part of this."

Neil Shea is a reporter for The Providence Journal.

Posted in editing narrative, sessions.Raising Your Voice, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Susan Orlean, voice on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink