Revise Every Day: Losing Your Voice

dream plan write

If you’ll notice, the image above is missing this particular step of writing. The motto is meant to remind myself and others that writing every day isn’t necessarily limited to the actual writing. Apart from full-time writers, most of us don’t have the time to write as much as we’d like. And when we do find time, there will most likely be some need for time spent doing the other stages apart from the actual writing–dreaming and fleshing out new ideas, pre-writing (if you’re into that kind of thing), and, afterward, revising. I’ve come to understand that any time I do any kind of writing work in a day, I’ve made some progress, and that’s good. Thus, the motto that I’ve since drawn out into a series of posts.

As I mentioned before, though, the revision stage is missing from my motto. There’s one reason for it: I hate revising. (Technically there’s a second reason, being that the motto wouldn’t have sounded as good with it included.) I take a lot of joy in the actual writing, but when it’s time to revise, I drag my feet. I avoid, procrastinate, even give up.

When I do get around to revising, I’m really just no good at it. I’m so attached to my original words, I give a pass to areas that I know should be changed. Mostly, though, I simply don’t notice the problem areas. I don’t feel I have a lot to offer anyone else in the area of revision that can’t be found many other places.

Thus, posts about revision in this series will probably not come up as often as the other stages. The topic of this post, however, stemmed partly from my revision work with my sisters during our Skype meetings, and partly from my attempt to help one of those sisters with her own writing. So now, onto the actual post.

I’ve done a lot of research on voice lately, even before I’d decided to write this blog post. I didn’t fully understand what it was, at first, or how one goes about defining it. And I don’t just mean the literal definition of the term “writer’s voice.” I thought one could describe the voice the same way a sommelier would discuss wine: “This writer’s voice is oaky and complex, with a harsh finish.” (Okay, I know nothing about wine, so I made all that up.) I no longer think a writer’s voice can be defined that way. At best, you could probably compare an author’s voice with another’s, such as, “His writing reminds me of Michael Crichton.” I would be interested to find out if I’m wrong, and that there are professionals out there who have terms they use to define various authors’ voices.

Every writer has a voice, whether they’ve written one short story or 200 novels. It’s not something you have to go looking for, it simply is. It’s there, in the way you write. For some, it may be the same as the way they speak, but I know I speak a little differently than I write. I think it’s just because I put a little more thought into my written words, even when my fingers are flying to get a scene out, than I normally put into my spoken words.

From my research lately, I’ve come across people who are adamant that you do not have to find, or even develop, your voice. I agree with that, though I do think that one’s voice can change over time. Various elements add to or change a voice, like growing up and maturing, moving to an area with a different way of speaking (ex. moving from New York to Arkansas), or just spending time with someone whose own way of speaking influences yours. Then there are people who purposely work to develop a voice different from their own, whether because they think it’ll better appeal to the audience they writing for, or because the main character or first-person narrator would have a different voice, or whatever other reason. However, when writing naturally, your voice should come out on its own.

While you shouldn’t have to find your voice, it is possible to lose your voice. However, this won’t happen during the writing (unless, as mentioned previously, you intend it to). What I’m referring to happens during the revision process, if you’re not careful. I didn’t think about it until my sisters and I had already been working on my first novel for months. One of my sisters made a suggestion about how to reword a sentence that wasn’t incorrect. I took my time considering the suggestion, because I had no problem with the way it was. I remember her words then: “Or would changing that change your ‘voice’ or something?”

I hadn’t really considered it before. I did have a voice. And so did she. And her voice would find its way into her revision suggestions.

In the time since then, that same sister has told me that she now skips over some notes she’d made in her hard copy of my story, because she realizes those notes are just her changing my voice into hers. It’s been interesting to view my revision in this new light. I’d wondered before how writers choose between two ways of wording things that both seemed right. Consider the following example:

Governments around the world tried to grasp the meaning of these events. Some of the people exhibiting this new Power were studied. They were examined next to a group of other people who had none of these abilities. That’s when the real shock came. The people in this second group began to show signs of the new Power. That’s when they realized this Power had spread throughout the entire world.

Governments around the world attempted to make sense of these events. They studied the people in whom the new Power had manifested, alongside a control group of others who had none of these abilities. When those in the second group began to show signs of the new Power too, they realized it was far bigger than anyone had thought. It had spread all over the world.

You may be able to pick out one of these paragraphs that you prefer over the other, but can you really say one is better, or more specifically, more correct, than the other? When you ask someone else to read your work and make notes, they may (hopefully unintentionally) try to replace your voice with their own. When deciding whether or not to make changes based on each suggestion given by another, you first have to ask if the change would be taking the words out of your voice.

Even when I agree that my original words should be changed, either because they’re grammatically incorrect or because they are clunky, I still often take the suggested change and think about how I would word it. To me, it seems important to maintain the integrity of the author’s voice in their work. If your story is often shifting in voice, it might be disorienting to the reader; they might have a hard time following it or at least be jolted out of the world they’ve been creating in their mind while reading.

Revise for yourself:  There is no direct suggestion I can make for you to try this out for yourself, unless you happen to be in the same stage of writing as I am–revising a story for which you have asked someone else to help. If by any chance you’re doing exactly that, keep your eye out for rewordings that will take the story out of your voice. If it doesn’t sound like something you’d say or write, you should leave the original or find another way to fix the original.

Something anyone could try, though, is seeing how your own voice is different from others. Do this exercise with me:
Write a scene about someone making a peanut butter sandwich. Start with this sentence: “She finally grew hungry enough to set the book down and make herself some lunch.” To keep the paragraphs as close together as possible, include only these activities in your paragraph (however you want to combine or separate the activities is up to you):

  • Walks out to the kitchen
  • Gets bread
  • Gets peanut butter
  • Gets a knife
  • Spreads peanut butter
  • Puts bread together
  • Cleans up

Then make sure to share your paragraph with me. Mine is pasted below, but don’t read it until you’ve written your own.

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