Voice is an important part of growing as a writer, because it’s a gateway to writing more effortlessly. Creating anything will always require effort. But struggling in a first draft can be a sign of over-thinking your writing. Ron Shelton, the screenwriter of Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, says he’s got a sign that sits next to his laptop where he drafts. “Don’t think — just write,” it says. (The time for thinking is during revision, but that’s a pleasant task for another article.)
This time out, we can look at how to make an effective voice on the page. One exercise we use in the Workshop is what I call the Mimic Technique. Students choose a topic and write it on the top of a blank page. For example, it might be “On Breakfast Habits of Mine” or “The Tears at the End of Prom Night.” They also bring in a passage from a favorite author whose voice they’d like to adapt. They read that passage aloud, just a paragraph, to let that voice seep into their writing spirit. Then they write, just a simple draft, on their chosen topic, working to infuse the voice they’ve just read aloud. It’s an experimental, playing process that helps tune up the writing ear for an author’s voice.
Voice also represents a way to carry stories of your life forward. Our most natural voice is the one we heard telling us stories while we grew up. I call it the Birth Voice, and it often sounds like that voice in our head that talks to us 24×7. A writer might use this voice in telling stories, but they’d like to be heard on the page the same way they’re heard in person. Making that transfer from speaking to writing involves a few tricks that can be useful.
Voice is essential to writing truly and deeply. Ernest Hemingway was a novelist whose stories and views are not for everybody, but no one disputes he was a great writer. One key reason for his success was the tone of truth he could use in his writing.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he said. “Write the truest sentence you know.” Writing can sound simple, as he intended. That direct simplicity brings our voices to the reader with the right amount of effort.