I had to un-learn a lot from college – in real life, you don’t get extra points for using big words when small ones will do. You can’t skip class and still make A’s (I know, I know). And the last thing in the universe you want is to sound like everybody else.
Today’s post is about voice, tics, and how to find a balance between being unique and interesting – and communicating with your audience.
First, tics. These are the little habits we all have as writers. The words we repeat. The lazy shortcuts we take in first drafts. I have my own fair share: emoting with the eyes (“panic was in her eyes”), vague descriptions, shying away from emotion, and repeating words like “that,” “quite,” and passive voice. In first drafts I also love semicolons – but oddly, only in first-person POV. Perhaps I think in semicolons. That doesn’t mean I’m allowed to keep them on the page. Sigh.
It’s not all that difficult to edit out your tics in revision, and often you should. Over time, you learn your own writing and you learn to add in specific description, concrete metaphors, and the like. You can “find / replace” (in Word, Control F) to identify the words you overuse and replace them with better alternatives. You can add back in the emotion and reactions of your characters all along, the fine shading to the word painting you’ve created. But you don’t want to go too far.
Some of your tics add character. Nearly every agent’s submissions guide these days is begging for a unique voice, a sound, a way of putting words together that belongs uniquely to a particular author. I love to read a book where the writing jumps off the page, where I could never mistake this author for another. But I also don’t want to have to struggle to understand – and there’s the rub.
I once heard an artist say you have to know the rules before you can break them on purpose. I think that’s true even more of writing. Good grammar and complete sentences are essential, but you need sentence fragments in dialogue to make it seem real. Scenes and plot arcs are critical, but there are geniuses who tell stories out of order – just look at Memento, or anything my college writing teacher Dan Marshall did. They’re enough to make you fall off your chair. But the key – as with all the rules – is to break them well and on purpose. To break them in a way that your audience follows along with bated breath – in a way you’re understood. Because at the end of the day, we’re writing for more than ourselves – we’re writing to tell a story to an audience.
So you should know your tics. You should make yourself a list, and ask your readers and your writer’s group to help you add to it (my writer’s group has volunteered more than a few, much to my chagrin at the time). That list will help you incredibly in the revision stage. Because only when you know what you’re doing unconsciously can you begin to use your tics – and the larger concept of voice – intentionally. Not every character should sound the same – and not every story. But you as an author should shine through in all of them. Once you’ve studied your own style and experimented, sometimes that will mean adding tics on purpose and arguing with your writer’s group to keep them. But sometimes it won’t.
But the key, as with everything else in writing, is to do what you do on purpose – to avoid laziness, shortcuts and habit, and to revise intentionally.