Monday, 2 May 2011

the writer's voice and how to shut it up

As a writer I am passionate about the following subjects:

Food hygiene.
Mid range family cars.
Duodenal ulcer medication.

Well, I've written training, promotional or information films about those subjects, and I did the best work I could on them, and we all know that writers have to be passionate to do their best work, so I must have been passionate. I was definitely passionate about getting paid for them. At other times in my career I have also been passionate about many other subjects, including:

Airline customer relations.
Surgical gowns.
Conflict resolution for nightclub staff.
The history of the London Science Museum.

Some of those scripts were pretty good. The food hygiene film became part of a national training process. But is it enough to be passionate about how bacteria get into the food chain when someone doesn't wash their hands between taking a dump and making your sandwich? As a writer you must also WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW and only do so when you have FOUND YOUR VOICE.

I assume we've all got over the Write What You Know thing. Countless people have pointed out that many great writers have no first hand knowledge of what they write about. And in the digital age everybody knows everything anyway. Research is no big deal.

Research = Google.
In-depth research = Lunch with someone who knows their stuff.
High Grade Classified Inside Intelligence = Paying for the lunch.

The author, in an early attempt to discover the subtle cadences of his own quietly distinctive voice.
Of course, knowledge isn't the same as wisdom. Any time you suspect we're all going to hell in a handcart you'll probably find a knowledgeable fuckwit directing the traffic. However, the cart is always pulled by an ignorant nincompoop, and a bit of information might at least help them see what a rotten job it is. But for writers, once we've acquired all the information we need to write about a transexual neurosurgeon who uses quantum mechanics to travel back in time and foil a plot to destabilize the 17th century Flemish potato market, the next step is to FIND YOUR VOICE.

The writer's voice I like best is the one I can't hear. By that I mean the one I can't hear drawing attention to itself. I'm not suggesting that writers shouldn't have a... what's the word? Style! That's it. In fact, let's stop talking about writers having a voice, and think about style. Ah, that's better. Now we can talk about good style and bad style, and the difference between style and content, instead of wondering if the writer has a distinctive voice, and whether it's an authentic voice or one he picked up in a creative writing class, which is where this stuff about voices came from in the first place. Yep, style is what we called it back in the good old days. Back when all this was open prairie, pardner, and a writer could ride tall with his trusty Remington typewriter on his saddle and spy nary a soul all day. A voice? Hell, in them days voices was fer highfalutin greenhorns and dancin' teachers and sitch like, and a real writer wouldn't say a single damn word out loud from one year to the next, 'ceptin mebbe to cuss a little under his breath at some inconvenience like his leg droppin off or his wife gettin ett by a bear. Yes, siree. Ptooeee. Oops, missed the dang spittoon agin. Hope them fancy suede shoes can be cleaned, my friend.

Sorry about that, I'll turn the TV off. I was watching the news while I was writing and then there was an old episode of Bonanza. Let's get back to style.

What's your writing style? Are you trying to develop one? Really? Why? I mean it. Why do you want a style? Is it a way of making your writing distinctive or is it a way of telling your story? I believe that good style is about doing the job and bad style is about itself. The best writers use style to do something more than let you know what great stylists they are. They let you figure out what great stylists they are by working so hard to make what they write seem natural that you don't think of them having a style. You just hear their voice. Which is, finally, what you end up with after you've written and written and written some more and then, when you want to say something, you sit down to work yet again and there is simply no other way to write.

Some people claim that a writing style can be identified scientifically like a unique literary fingerprint. These people are often trying to prove that Shakespeare was written by someone else. Maybe the fact that none of them can agree on who, exactly, means that the methodology is truly scientific. In science if everyone agrees with each other they must all be wrong, but if everyone disagrees then at least one person must be right.

Meanwhile the rest of us can dream that we'll eventually write something so good that one day intelligent people will spend time trying to prove that someone else wrote it. All we can do is keep writing, and make sure we do our best work on everything we write, whether it's a food hygiene training video, a novel, a feature film, or a blog. That's as much as I know about how to develop a distinctive writing style. But I'm pretty sure that if it ever stops being hard work, that's when you've lost your voice.

So when you've found your voice, shut up about it.


  1. Loved this! Although I am now worried you have nicked my cool destabilising of the Flemish potato market idea - hell, are there NO new ideas under the sun? (Apparently not. They are all part of the 7 plots. Or 11. Or 42 or whatever it is.) You better tell it in a very different voice to mine, that's all I'm saying.

    Don't agree with you about voice and style. Umm. At least, I'm not sure whether I do or not.

    Voice, I think, is certainly relevent when talking about first person books. Getting an authentic voice is the whole key to them.

    Apart from that - voice and style. Humm. I think style is how you string the words together. There was a recent article on VL about Kafka writing in the German and how untranslatable it is because he uses the way the language works to deliberately write enormously long sentences where you have no idea at all about what he is talking about until the final word or two. This is something you can do in German, apparently, but not so successfully in English. This, I would call a style of writing. Although no doubt he has voice too and this style is partly what creates the voice - being incredibly ambiguous and double-meaninged (an element, I would argue, of voice) is being created by this style (how he strings the sentences together).

    A good example of voice would be someone like Alan Bennett (can't you already hear the slightly world-weary wry dry tone already?). So, voice for me is something in the attitude and outlook and character of the writing. The style of writing may suggest the voice, yes, but isn't totally the same thing. Which is why you can get style without content. Or all style and no character. But you don't tend to get voice without content or voice with no character. Voice is usually saying something. And suggests a sense of character of some sort or other.

    This may well just be my wanky interpretation though.

    I also disagree about the "doing the job" kind of writing. Very fashionable these days for people to talk of invisible writing and show not tell and throw things at anyone who dares to use a narratorial voice etc etc. I think this obsession with invisibility comes from screenwriting, myself, and I disagree with it because I love books where I feel like they are a friend (preferably a fun or playful one) telling me something I want to hear about. If a book just has writing that "does the job" it is just story - I might as well read a screenplay and I'd probably prefer that really as I like reading screenplays. For it to be in prose, I want there to be something colourful or characterful there in the writing of the thing. And for the thing to have its own personality.

    There. Phew. That was a long comment. Well, you know I'm argumentative.

    PS are quite obsessed with potatoes, aren't you?

  2. Paul Bassett Davies4 May 2011 at 08:07

    Towards the end of this post I do actually say that the best writers do have a voice BUT they arrive at it by writing a lot, hence the suggestion that you have to keep "doing the job" until your voice develops naturally through writing. What I'm saying is that some creative writing classes encourage aspiring writers try to assume a ready-made voice, and you can always detect that. The writer I love most is Dickens and he certainly has a distinctive voice. He was also a genius, and his voice is there in his first published work (although it developed and matured), but even he put in a lot of work as a hack parliamentary reporter and columnist before writing his first novel. My complaint is simply that writers keep trying to bypass something that you have to go through to earn a voice: a lot of very hard work.

  3. Beautiful! I am a bit obsessed with the word 'voice' and have read a lot of writing about the so called writer's voice, and currently, this post is my favourite. Very funny too.