As a writing coach, I have had the privilege of being there more than once when a writer finds her voice. It often happens in my writing circles – my group coaching practice. There’s a reason it happens there, which I’ll explain later when I try to illustrate what you can do to find or improve your own voice.
Here’s what it looks like in the circle: The writer has a particularly good writing day. (We write and read our raw material for the juice it holds.) The good day came because they got lost in the writing and were able to express a unique take on whatever the prompt was. Or they’ve reached a depth in the scene that goes beyond the plot on the page but makes the world of words come alive.
When they read it’s clear to one and all that in some way they’ve linked with the material and with that part of themselves that has permission to speak. There’s a mastery of craft that marries with a passion about what they’re writing and it’s almost as if a writer is born. While it may not be that dramatic, what has happened is that the writer has taken her work to a new level.
What’s particularly interesting to me is that once I’ve heard that change of voice, and once it’s been validated and supported within the group, it continues to grow.
But I’ve begun to notice a pattern. We meet weekly and the writers who’ve had this sort of breakthrough usually have a few more hits and then a rather large miss. Almost as if they’ve come up against some sort of line of mastery. Perhaps they reached too far out of their own comfort zone. Perhaps they’ve gotten slightly comfortable and so a little lazy. What’s needed when that happens is an infusion of craft to challenge them and/or a slight change to the process. A longer or shorter session time. A new craft element to master. Something to keep the process fresh.
The following week they dig back in and once again I hear the difference in their work from when they started.
So what is happening in these classes and what about that process can be duplicated for other writers? I’ve been studying that question for a few months now.
Here is what I’ve come up with so far:
Step One: Mastering the free-writing process is essential to connecting with your unique way of expression.
Free-writing is pen to paper for a timed exercise. Don’t lift your pen off the paper even if you’re writing “I don’t know what to write.” Keep writing until your timer goes off. Begin short – 10 minutes or so, but don’t let yourself get comfortable with any one time. Switch it up.
Free-writing works because, with pen to paper for a timed writing, it is possible to get your editor to quiet down. If you really don’t care about the grammar, the run-on sentences, the changing tenses and any other editing horrors; if you just let your pen (your soul? your characters? your story?) tell you what it wants to say, you will surprise yourself. You will get beyond your insecurity and connect with the muse in a way you don’t when you peck out one word at a time and fuss over commas and what your critique group said was wrong with your piece last time.
Free-writing is the cornerstone of how many of my clients have found their voice. We all have internal editors grown from school, from critique groups and writing rules. So we need a way to get past that critical voice inside ourselves. Growing your internal editor is absolutely essential to the entire process. But in growing your editor you might be drowning out the voice of the creator inside.
By free-writing, you are developing a practice that gets the words on the page before the internal editor can slice and dice. Consider free-writing like practicing your writing scales. The more you practice the better you will be. It will be easier to slip into the material and see what it is you have to say.
As an aside, the NaNoWriMo contest is a great tool to get past your editor. The pressure is on to produce and get words on the page so the rules are tossed in order to compete. After completing NaNoWriMo one of my clients read her work in the writing circle. She had that shift in voice because NaNo forced her editor to get out of the way. If you haven’t competed, check it out. It’s only 11 months away.Step Two: Develop your eye for potential. Before you start hacking at your raw work and editing in the traditional sense, take a step to notice what’s working. Begin to train your eye to the potential in what you’ve produced. Be generous. If you develop this skill you will become a writer who can let the words tell you what needs to be said. You will discover and develop a depth within your work that will define your voice. I had a mentor once who told me that writers have to become the best readers of their own work. I take that to mean that I must be able to see what it is I want to say. And then say it.
In this step you challenge your internal editor to look for the possibilities and not the defects. When you’re working with a piece of raw writing, what you’re looking to identify are the images, the expressions, the plot twists, the symbols, the themes, the character revelations and anything else that makes a work come alive.
Step Three: Free-write for depth. Once you’ve taken the time to look for the possibilities in your work, don’t step into traditional editing quite yet. Give yourself permission to free-write again. Focus on developing the potential you identified.
- What about that image haunts the page? Why that image? What other forms of that might you use?
- Now that you know something new about your character, how might it show up in a different way? In a different scene?
- How does the dialogue your character uses reflect what you now know about him?
Feel free to write in actual scenes or rewrite the scene you just wrote with your new knowledge. Or sometimes just address your creative self directly. Do a free-write where you tell yourself what you’ve discovered and what you’re trying to achieve. How you can use that image or how that scene fits the theme of the story, etc. You’ll be surprised again when ideas start flowing right onto the page.
Step Four: Let your internal editor loose on the page. Once you’ve taken your free-writes and developed the scene as far as you can, give it over to that wonderful internal editor to fix.
Step Five: When you butt up against that line of mastery what you must do next is immerse yourself in craft. Studying craft is essential. Forever.
Move up the scale of craft instruction. Learn how to create tension in subtext. Learn how to show, don’t tell. Learn about conflict and scene structure. Learn all there is to learn and then find another perspective.
Find a book, a class or a mentor to challenge what you know about craft. Experiment with your new knowledge in a free-write. Stretch and challenge your writing self.
If you practice, you will wake the artist in you and free your voice to the page.
Here's another blog on voice you might be interested in.
About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.