Why is it that so many articles offering advice on how to improve as a writer or have a unique voice start with the most common (and probably the worst) point? I was recently reading an article in the Search Engine Journal that promised to teach, “How to Develop a Writing Voice that People Recognize from a Mile Away.”
The article’s first point is that writers should employ more metaphors in order to have their work stand apart from others. This is probably the worst possible advice you can give a new writer. You know why? Because humans love to take things to the extreme. You tell people to use metaphors in their writing to stand out and they end up taking it overboard to the point where their “distinct voice” is distinctly telling me to run far, far away and not waste my time.
This problem with the overuse of metaphors became most apparent to me while I was reading a book called, The Eye of Horus by Carol Thurston. That book is probably one of the worst novels I’ve ever read in my life for many reasons, but one of the things that bothered me most about it was Thurston’s egregious overuse of metaphors. Every description does not need a segue into something completely irrelevant in order to be powerful. Not every lady is a rose. Not every problem is a storm.
Using too many metaphors in your writing actually shows weakness rather than strength. It tells me that you are not imaginative enough to describe something vividly on its own merits. It also makes your writing sound cliché. You’re not writing poetry, so calm the hell down. (Unless you are writing poetry, then I don’t know what to tell you because I’m a terrible poet.)
The shitty thing is that other than the terrible first piece of advice, the article in SEJ actually includes some really great points. Number 3, “Have an opinion,” number 6, “Read the work of great writers,” and number 7, “Narrow the gap between who you are in person and who you are online,” are great pieces of advice. Unfortunately, humans also have really short attention spans, so many people are likely to take the first point and run with it, ignoring the other eight.
I find number 6 to be the most underrated of the bunch. Recently I was chatting with my book club about how much I hated the book chosen for the month (11/22/63 by Steven King) but how nonetheless I thought King was a technical master. He has a unique writing style, and although I felt he was ill-suited for the historical fiction genre, there was almost nothing technically wrong with his writing. (The story itself is another issue altogether.) His book, On Writing, is widely held to be a must-read for any aspiring writer. I didn’t particularly enjoy 11/22/63, but I am a better writer for having read it.
The inverse of number 6 is also true. Read the work of terrible writers. If you can read a book and explain exactly why it sucks, you have a unique skill that can be applied to your own writing. You need to be able to know what NOT to do and why not to do it. You need to be hyper aware so that you can pinpoint what makes certain novels successful and certain novels travesties. I did this with The Eye of Horus. Every time I had to stop and say, “Jesus Christ, this is fucking terrible,” I went into Evernote and wrote exactly what made it terrible. My note is titled, “Things to avoid at all costs in my writing.”
There are many things that make my writing voice distinct:
- I usually write very casually, interspersing slang and informalities with my grammatically perfect whoms and whatnot.
- I’m not afraid to use curse words.
- I lace together long, complicated sentences with short, concise ones.
- I love commas.
- I love questions.
- I’m not afraid to voice my (often abrasive) opinions.
- I love to make up my own words.
- I often end my posts with a call to action.
- The metaphors I use (when I use them) are usually related to sci-fi, fantasy, food or poker.
- I place a lot of stress on logic and science.
Taken separately, none of these points are particularly special. It is only when combined that they make my voice truly unique.
What makes your writing voice unique?
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