To be a writer, all you need are a pen, paper and a few ideas. To be a good writer, you need that something extra. You need to go out and find your writing voice: your style. And that can be a difficult journey.
Take a look at Cormac McCarthy’s work. Compare it to, say, Stephen King, and then compare both of those to someone like Raymond Chandler. Pick up Susan Hill or Anne Rice or Agatha Christie. Look at the way they write. Listen to their voices.
Cormac McCarthy is a good example of a writer finding his voice. In his novel Outer Dark the writing is quite intricate, as though he’s too aware of his own style. Read No Country For Old Men or The Road and you can see his voice has changed. His style is much sparer. A lot more confident.
You can get an editor to tidy up your prose, highlight all those grammatical errors and plot disparities, but your writing voice is yours and you should be comfortable with it. Get to know it. Work on it until you become good friends.
We’re timid souls, us writers. We flinch at criticism. It hurts just as much as a knitting needle plunged in the heart. If someone says they don’t like what we’ve written, we run to the bathroom, lock the door and burst into tears (or is that just me?). But this isn’t about other people’s critiques.
What we are bad at is self-criticism. We’re not too fond of stabbing ourselves in the neck. That’s understandable. But it’s a trait that also stops us progressing as writers.
So let’s try a little experiment, nothing too painful, to get us going.
Take some writing you haven’t looked at for a while, something that’s been sitting there for at least a couple of months. Read it through once (don’t try to edit as you go along). Think about the piece for a while. Does it have your true voice? Is it what you intended.
Now, pick up your pen and have a play around with it. Sit somewhere nice and comfortable, have a glass of wine or a nettle tea, whatever your poison is. If you generally use a lot of words, try paring it down to the minimum. If you’re a minimalist try bulking it out with more description. Remember, we’re not looking at whether the story is a good or bad one but how you tell it.
Finished? Compare the original with the new piece. What do you think?
Improvement in your writing style may happen organically over time. The more you do something, the better you get. However, it will happen a lot quicker if you can stand back, question yourself. Be a little ruthless.
Just a smidge.
I like spare writing. It gives the reader, in my opinion, more chance to involve their own imaginations. It also, for me, helps stop a scene stagnating with too much description. That’s my point of view. It may not, and probably isn’t, yours. But spare suits my inner voice. It’s how I want to develop my writing (that and mastermind a killer plot that scares the socks off the world).
The point (I think) I’m trying to make is this: Don’t be content with your writing. I know it’s a painful process and I know there has to be a point when you put down the pen and say “that’s finished”.
A modicum of honest reflection will make all the difference to both you and your reader.