My Fair Writer
Writers care about their voice. I get one response to edits more than nearly any other: “You’ve changed my voice—I wouldn’t say it that way.” And I get it. I’ve said the same thing before.
As a writer, you have a concept of how your words should sound. I don’t mean how they should be pronounced (though some writers I’ve worked with have opinions about that too). I mean the overall feeling of the piece—the rhythm, the word choice, the punctuation. All of it builds into something that writers often refer to as their “voice.”
Your written voice—like the one the flapping muscles in our throats produce—is unique. Kinda. Our spoken voices have certain immutable traits that, try as we might, we’re not likely to change. Pitch, timbre, and tone often come to use through the proteins our parents gave us in our genetics. But a lot of our spoken voices change based on the people we interact with on a regular basis. Accents slide their way onto our tongue without a second thought and it’s so unconscious that we don’t notice until someone else’s mouth muscle wags differently.
In the years I’ve been writing and editing, I’ve noticed that a penned voice carries most—if not all—of the same traits as a spoken one. And like me accidentally mimicking the soft tones of a Dublin accent whilst ordering a Guinness, that voice isn’t necessarily ours.
In the interest of helping you—our lovely Fathom writers—not freak out in the editing process, I want to make a simple statement: hold your “voice” with a light hand. Like all the darlings we have to be willing to slaughter, our voice in writing should change as it reflects our growth as a writer. If your voice never changes, chances are your writing has stagnated a bit. I’m not talking swamp-stagnation, but definitely getting molasses-slow.
So, here are three things to consider when you think about your writing voice and the editorial process.
Your writing reflects what you read.
Sure there are the “genetic” things programmed into your prose (stuff you’re going to write because it’s hard-wired into you—like double-spacing after a period), but in reality your voice will reflect the writers and writing you most often consume. Simply being aware that you’re going to mimic someone else in your writing is a huge step in massaging your voice into something more specifically you.
And the truth is the more widely read you are, the more metropolitan your voice will be. I can tell writers who read only high fantasy fiction because their storytelling always involves magic and swords. I can tell when a writer reads too many clinical or technical texts because their writing comes off like a lab report. On and on the examples could go—and they do.
So when it comes to your relationship with your editor, know that they’re inclined to help you develop your voice, even if it means making edits that don’t necessarily sound like you. Because your “voice” might not actually be yours.
Your editor cares about your voice—just not the way you might want.
In the vein of point one, know that your editor does have your voice in mind when they edit, or at least they should. I can’t speak for every editor out there. Your piece might end up in shreds on my cutting room floor and it could very well be the first time you’ve encountered that kind of evisceration.
But know this: My goal isn’t to dismantle your prose and make it sound like I wrote it. My goal is to make your voice more thoroughly yours. And yes, that might involve introducing new words to your vocabulary. It might be shortening your long sentences. It might be murder-killing your exclamation points or making you clarify your thises.
If you find yourself thinking, “I wouldn’t say it that way,” on an edit, one of the first questions you can ask is, “Why?” If you feel like an edit makes a sentence or two no longer sound like you and you can’t articulate why it should sound like you, consider it an opportunity to learn. You’re adding more tools to your arsenal, making you a more well-rounded writer. And if you do it enough and can start articulating the form and function behind your style, it’ll help your editors better serve you in honing that voice.
Earn your voice.
With enough time with your butt in a chair and words on the screen, you’ll develop a style of writing that’s recognizable anywhere you take it. Editors will seek you out for your voice, not just for your expertise or availability. But that comes with time, with help from editors, and with great self-awareness. But once it’s there, you’ll have quite a few more chips to cash in with editors.
I responded to the very first column I received from the incomparable John Blase with a long list of edits on word choice, sentence structure, and comments that, once I fully realized whose inbox I was dropping my edits into, were straight up pedantic. If anyone’s earned a right to guard his voice carefully, it would be John. But with great patience and humility, he pushed back gently on most of my edits and with good reason. He’d done the time, articulated his style, and worked with me toward the common goal of putting the best version of his work out there. I’d love to encounter more writers like John. Even when you’re seasoned, approach edits with humility.
Your voice is part of you and how you write. It’s okay to feel attached to it. But when you’re working with an editor, you might feel a bit like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Learning a new accent takes hard work. The words flowing from your fingers might sound not-quite-right. But in the end, you’ll have a larger command of your medium, and that’s no small thing.
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