A writer friend recently said to me, "When I read, I find I'm influenced by other authors. Depending on who I'm reading, my writing style is either playful, deep sounding or whatever. How can I stop writing like other writers and find my own voice?"
(She also added that I might want to write an article based on my response - hence what you're reading right now!)
Before we get on to practical tips, we should cover some basic preconceptions about voice.
First of all, your voice should never be some affectation you acquire or work on. I think you know what I mean. When we're at school or in the office, we're told there's a certain way to say things - a style we must adopt to conform to the medium.
Many novice writers think the same applies to fiction - that there is perhaps some predetermined mental attitude and/or demeanour one should adopt - usually a 'superior, more learned' version of ourselves - to sound more authoritative when telling stories.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
You should always write in the style that is most natural to you. It may well be different from your speaking voice but should always reflect the way your mind works.
Secondly, your voice doesn't have to be 'original'. You can waste years of your time wondering what 'originality' is and trying to define and acquire it.
When critics, publishers and agents say they want 'originality', I believe they have no idea what they mean. They merely confuse writers by demanding something so nebulous and indefinable. I think what they should really be asking for is 'honesty'.
The simple truth is you already possess all the originality you need. You are already unique. No-one else thinks and writes like you do - trying to undo your own originality by constantly striving to be anything less than yourself is counter productive. Trust yourself.
Trusting yourself is probably the hardest trick you'll have to learn as a writer - but it is absolutely essential to your growth. Because it's only when you trust your ability to say what you mean with honesty and integrity, that your voice will start to come through.
The real test of a good authorial voice is consistency - it is as strong and recognizable at the beginning of a story as it is at the end.
So how do you achieve this consistency? How do 'get' your voice?
It's a process, of course - and here are some practical tips to strengthen and consolidate your own:
Consciously practice different styles and categorize them. Write using different voices - some that are deliberately difficult to sustain. This will attune your mind to noting differences in style. Try writing highbrow essays and then lowbrow articles, egocentric columns, little plays, short dispassionate biographies - anything that stretches you. These pieces don't have to be publishable - they are designed to help you 'play' with the writing medium.
Try to write without thinking for short bursts. If this sounds too hard, try writing for ten minutes just after you've woken in the morning - before you can think straight, just write anything.
Later, try looking up a word in the dictionary at random and write for ten minutes without stopping, using the word as inspiration. Force yourself to write, whether you're inspired or not - this is a great technique for getting in touch with your subconscious voice (i.e. your true voice.)
During writing spells, especially first drafts, don't read anything - no books, newspapers, magazines, cereal packets, nothing. Starve yourself of influences so that you can concentrate on just your voice and, not only the things you want to say but, how you want to say them.
When you've written sections you're convinced are beginning to reflect your most natural and compelling voice, read them into a tape recorder and play them back. The very process will help because you'll probably find your best passages easiest to read. If not, delete the clumsy words, the extra adverbs, the overlong sentences and try again.
Try writing two different versions of pieces - like short stories. Write one with all the literary might you can summon and write another with just a little casual indifference. Post out both to magazine publishers or read them to your friends to see what they think.
Consciously remind yourself everyday that you are a writer, that you are thinking a writer's thoughts and your are determined that your writing will truly and accurately reflect those thoughts. Do not hide behind fear of honesty or the thought that exposing your inner psyche is in any way bad. It's not.
The real you is what your readers want, respect and deserve.
(c) Rob Parnell