Writers, Don’t Reject Your Voice!

During my freshman year of high school, my friend Eruheran and I decided to try our hands at writing a piece for an essay contest. What the essay topic was escapes me, so let’s just say we were both tasked with writing about narwhals.

narwhal_5f51ed_1841767
narwhal: a horned sea creature notorious for skewering our dearest sea friends.

So once Eruheran and I had completed our narwhal essays, we passed them along to our English teacher at the time, requesting that she read them and provide some feedback to help us out. But our teacher changed the entire dynamic of the situation when she asked, “Whose essay would you like me to read first?”

And there it was. A spark of challenge. Eruheran and I looked at each other with grave expressions. Were we doomed to squabble over the privilege of receiving the first read like Roman gladiators? Were we destined to clash like Maximus Decimus Meridius and Emperor Commodus? Were we bound to fight like Mufasa and Scar? Were we fated to feud like M. Night Shyamalan and all respectable movie-going audiences? No. Eruheran and I decided to unite.

Instead of playing ball, we seized our trusted Sharpies, crossed out our names classified-CIA style, and handed them to the teacher. “It’s your call,” we determined.

And so, days later, our teacher returned our essays to us, and without fail, she put my paper on my desk and Eruheran’s paper on his desk. She knew who wrote which essay because of that little thing called voice. Even though we both wrote about narwhals, my teacher was able to confidently identify the fingerprint pressed upon each paper. My teacher knew her students’ writing well enough to differentiate my essay from my friend’s.

The moment my paper was returned to my desk, I understood the power of voice. Simply put, voice is a writer’s style. Some writers certainly bear similarities to others, but ultimately, one cannot feign a style. If I try to sing like Sinatra, I might sound like him when I hit a certain note (silence), but in the end, I’m just going to sound like me. It’ll still going to be my voice.

And so, fellow writers, I urge you this: Hold on to your voice.

Often times we expose ourselves to so many tips and opinions and insights as to how we should write this or write that. I’ve read people vehemently stress that a writer should use “said” to preface a line of dialogue sparingly. They assert that in most cases, a writer should replace “said” with a more animated verb like “bark” or “growl.”

Upon seeing the narwhal charging with its menacing horn , J.J. barked, “Run!”

I’ve also read people who reject that notion entirely, arguing that one cannot “bark” a line of dialogue, and thus “said” and its more conventional variants should be used in most cases.

Upon seeing the narwhal charging with its menacing horn, J.J. shouted, “Run!”

And then I’ve read opinions from others who insist that prefacing dialogue with anything at all is futile, as the tone of the dialogue should be made clear by the prior action or expression delineated immediately before it.

J.J. saw the charging narwhal and turned on his heel. “Run!”

I’ve learned that those rules of “never” and “always” are utterly useless. If I want to animate a character’s speech by having him bark it, I will. If I want to frame a back-and-the-forth argument using “said,” I will. If I don’t want to preface my dialogue with any word at all, I will.

Of course, a line of dialogue can be presented poorly, and so best judgement is implied in my suggestion of taking liberties, but my point stands. Writers budding and veteran, new and experienced, rusty and polished, do what you’ve been taught to do since kindergarten: Be yourself. Because if you go on trying to write like somebody else for the sake of “doing it right,” readers will be left with nothing new, nothing fresh, nothing original. In an era of Hollywood remakes and rehashes, cookie-cutter novels, and formulaic channel 1-through-ten television shows, that is the last thing the good people of the world need.

Additionally, dismissing your voice is a dishonor to yourself.

If Tarantino cut down his dialogue, we would have never seen Jules Winnfield spend an entire scene delivering gem after gem of dialogue revolving around a burger. Tarantino had that scene in him, and it is all the better that he put it out into the world. And the world loves that he did.

pulpfiction.jpg

If Robert Jordan didn’t describe the texture and color and material of every floor and wall he ever wrote…well, I suppose I would be done with the Wheel of Time series already. But his attention to detail is one of the key aspects as to what makes Robert Jordan’s writing Robert Jordan’s writing. In order to invest himself in his own world, he had to paint it so vividly.

I don’t want to read or watch anything conventional. Do you?

Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t seek out wisdom from your elders, because you should! Fill your head! Listen to what other authors have to say. Read about writing. Read about reading. Read. Write. Seek feedback. Always try to better yourself. But with thatyou must remain true to your essence.

Make the odd decision. Have faith in your reader’s intelligence. Have faith in your ability, in your story. Write boldly. Write as you want to.

If you like what you see here, drop a comment to let me know what you think, and if you really like what you see here, you are welcome to subscribe if you haven’t already!

Thank you for your continued support, and as always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

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12 thoughts on “Writers, Don’t Reject Your Voice!

    1. Glad you got a kick out of it, Roderick! Pulp Fiction is definitely one of the greats. Along with Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained, Tarantino has definitely created gold that I’ll be watching for decades to come!

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  1. Pingback: 5 Books and the Lessons They Taught Me About Writing – J.J. Azar

  2. Well said: “I’ve learned that those rules of ‘never’ and ‘always’ are utterly useless. If I want to animate a character’s speech by having him bark it, I will. If I want to frame a back-and-the-forth argument using ‘said,’ I will. If I don’t want to preface my dialogue with any word at all, I will.” Ultimately, the writer should have the choice.

    As a rule, if your dialogue and action tag lines are good, the dialogue stands alone. It will speak to the reader. “Said” is often the word of choice because it is unobtrusive. (However, there are situations where “bark” and other descriptors make the dialogue better. That should be at the author’s discretion and liberty.) I do two things with a tag that requires “said.” I use it for natural pacing and pausing: “Sure,” he said, “let’s do it.” The reader, in his head, inserts a natural pause and hears the dialogue the way the character utters it. The other time I use “said” is when a tag is necessary to identify a speaker, but no action is needed or not wanted because the pacing is quick.

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    1. Your breakdown of “said” is fantastic. Yeah, “said” can be used to insert a pause into a line of speech! I haven’t seen anybody frame “said” that way. And you’re right about “said” being used when the dialogue is intended to be quick and snappy. I’ve found that I like to omit “said” and its variants and jump straight into the dialogue as often as I can. I figure if the preceding action gives a connotation to the speech, I don’t need to add a “said.” I’ll often use it to clarify a change in speaker or when it helps the flow, but ultimately, I have my preferences! Great analysis.

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      1. I only use [name] said when I have to denote the speaker (or for the pacing). If the tag isn’t necessary, I don’t use it. I also prefer to use the person’s name in an action or expression that accompanies the speech. Then I don’t need “said.”

        The credit for the breakdown for “said” does not go to me (although I’ve distilled the words). I’ve studied writing for quite a while and had some good instructors from the industry.

        The pacing part with the use of the word “said” I discovered when I read books. I paid attention to how the speech sounded in my head.

        Who was it that stated you never read books the same way again when you’re a writer? Was that you?

        I’ve actually never experienced the transition, since I have been a “writer” since my earliest memory. I have always looked at how books were written and presented, particularly when I wanted to learn paragraphing and punctuating dialogue (before there were ever courses on Internet, books I could access, or anyone was willing to help me).

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      2. I’ve always looked at movies in that sort of analytical way. I appreciate when a director puts effort into skillful construction of a film.

        As for writing, I know there was a blogger who just recently posted about how he/she couldn’t read books the same way because he/she is a writer, but I’ve never fallen into that. I’ll note beats of plot, but I don’t analyze sentence structure or anything of the sort. I’ve frankly done enough of that in English class. If you were to hand me a passage and ask me, “Why does this/doesn’t this work?” I could break it down and pick apart the diction and sentence length and such, but I tend to shut that down while reading. I’d drive myself mad! But your circumstance is different. The fact that you taught yourself a lot of what makes writing good by reading is commendable. What better place is there to look than to books?

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      3. English class: I guess you have to either like grammar and editing as well as writing (I do), or you have to be able to flip the switch. I can zoom in or zoom out, meaning I can stand back and enjoy the impact of the big picture, or I can zoom in and tease apart a particular aspect.

        Looking to books: One has to choose models wisely, of course. Not every book is well written. As for breaking rules, I’m all for that, but there’s a right way and a wrong way. It’s hard to explain what exactly is the “right way,” since it can vary, but good writers do it well.

        The better a writer you become, the more you recognize the really good writers, and the more you say, “Shit, that writer’s writing is good!” For masterful, tight writing by a highly experienced author and writing instructor, read Ghost Walking by Mark Spencer (whether it’s your genre or not). The writing is so worth it. It is a feast. I had the honour to read the manuscript prior to publication, and I was blown away. Pay particular attention to tag lines and actions around the dialogue.

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