Finding My “Voice”

No, not that one.  Although I hear it’s a fine television program.  No, I’m talking about the writing “voice” about which I’ve read in oh-so-many books on the craft, like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, in which Mr. Zinsser instructs his readers to, “develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone” (233).  That’s all well and good, Mr. Zinsser, but how, pray tell, does one develop that voice?  (I suspect more advice is to be found in his weekly column at The American Scholar, to which I’ll try to pay more attention).  I’ve been puzzling over this for some time now, usually while also stumbling through some troublesome sentence that I can’t seem to extricate myself from (or should it be “from which I can’t seem to extricate myself”?).  I suspect that I get stuck on some sentences not because I don’t know what to say, but because I’m not sure how I want to say it — which is to say, so to speak, that I haven’t found my voice.  Lately, in an effort to just get through these tricky times, I just write out what I would say if I were trying to get through a lecture on the topic.  I pretend that I’m standing in front of students and I’ve lost my place in my notes and I simply need to push on to the next big point.  Sometimes it’s clumsy, but it always gets me through.  And often, it’s my voice.  Those are words that I might actually say, rather than some prose that I forced out in an attempt to sound intelligent.  Obviously, those words need editing and polishing and  more elegance.  But the essential sound of the sentence is still mine; it’s the “voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page,” as Mr. Zinsser would put it.  And it starts by realizing what seems an obvious truth: my “voice” is actually my voice.  But without the annoying nasal tone, I hope.

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