Writers often hear another author warn them about losing their “voice.” But what exactly is “voice”? In reality, there are so many theories on this question that I could be here for years debating them all. I am of the belief that we all possess many voices (yes, listen to the voices in your head). I taught school for 40 years. I dragged both cooperative and uncooperative students through the writing process. Although many of them thought otherwise, I did not expect them to write on dull subject matter and make it interesting by employing an oratorical greatness. For what it is worth, the key to finding one’s voice is sincerity. Be yourself. So to the Amazon reviewer who gave me a one-star review for my “overuse of the word ‘mayhap,'” I say “mayhap” is embedded in my genes. I come from a strong Appalachian stock that uses the word, even today. I can ditch phrases such as “needless to say,” for it a filler, and if it is needless to say, then why say it? I have taught myself to avoid split infinitives, even though everyone in my family doctors his speech with them. However, “mayhap” is likely to slip into my speech because it is part of who I am. It is not contrived. It is sincere. It is part of my author’s voice.
When I taught school, I wanted my students to write with clarity and directness. Jacqueline Berke in her “The Qualities of Good Writing” provides us with some excellent examples of the need for chopping out the deadwood. Berke gives us this example: “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to predict on the basis of my limited information as to the predilections of the public, what the citizenry at large will regard as action commensurate with the present provocation, but after arduous consideration I personally feel so intensely and irrevocably committed to the position of social, political, and economic independence, that rather than submit to foreign and despotic control which is anathema to me, I will make the ultimate sacrifice of which man is capable—under the aegis of personal honor, ideological conviction, and existential commitment, I will sacrifice my own mortal existence.”
Have you not read something similar? I judge quite a few writing contests at both the high school and the “professional” level. I come across such passages all the time, especially in what we call JAFF (Jane Austen fan fiction). Many self-published writers (I leave out the traditionally published ones, for, hopefully, a good editor will lead him/her to the Promise Land.) of JAFF think they must write “like Austen” by adding every convoluted phrases they can conjure up to their story.
Do you recall the episode on “Friends” when Joey learns to use a thesaurus to write a recommendation for adoption for Chandler and Monica? (View it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcM4zWiikKQ) This is what I mean.
The problem with attempting to “sound like Austen” is we cannot write “like Austen.” Jane Austen possessed her own unique voice. We can use correct terminology for the period, but Austen wrote/spoke as did all others of her period. We think of her as an historical writer, when, in reality, she composed contemporary pieces. JAFF writers can flavor their pieces with Regency based words, but their own unique voice must remain.
Now, let us return to the Berke paragraph above. As written, no one would recall it, but nearly all know a phrase that permits the author’s voice to ring sincere and expresses the same idea. “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” – Patrick Henry.
Patrick Henry’s line is not better because it is shorter. It is better because it expresses clarity and directness and we hear Henry’s “voice” as he shares something of himself with us. Patrick Henry’s line challenges us to take up arms with him. It rouses us to action, but the passage above we simply bores us.
So although the Berke example is grammatically correct, it lacks economy and simplicity and clarity and the writer’s sense of who his readers are (and who he is).