A decade ago I was given my first major magazine assignment. The twist is that it wasn’t actually MY assignment. I had been hired to rewrite an article that had been done by someone else. Poorly, it appears. I don’t know who this inadequate writer was. Possibly William Faulkner. Regardless, the copy filed by the writer was dull and lifeless, and my editor told me that my job was to make it “voicier.”
My assignment was to breathe life into the words by imbuing them with my own ESSENCE, which tends to be clear and direct and gleefully profane. The irony is that my own revision of the story ALSO never saw the light of day. But I must have made it voicier somehow, because I kept getting work from that editor, even assignments for articles I was allowed to write from scratch!
You can make your own writing voicier, too — the voice you use for your first novel, for the next email you write today, for your 8 millionth tweet, anything. Given that many of you are stuck inside right now, with nowhere else to go, you might even have the time to do it. But before I hand you your bluebook exam, I need to explain to you what voice is.
Your voice is you on the page. It’s the sum total of your influences and your life experiences — all built into words. It’s the expression of your identity, or perhaps the identity of the person you would LIKE to be. This is a blank page, after all. Lemme break down the formula for you.
Take in all the influences
A voice can come in an infinite number of guises. Let’s listen to a few of them right now.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
That’s from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. But let’s say you’d never read those words before and someone asked you to identify their source. I bet you could guess. That passage above is so distinctly King that it may as well be…