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Embracing Your Own Voice

(from Jonathan Reyes)
For a long time, I have admired beautiful, lyrical prose from a (great) distance. I used to think it was the pinnacle of good writing, a point everyone had to reach in order to be considered skilled and developed. In my creative writing classes in college I struggled toward it-- I overworked each sentence until they were all cringe-worthy, either "purple," as they say, or packed with cliches.

In one of my later attempts, though, I lapsed into my natural voice, which was considerably simpler and plainer. And on that section, my professor wrote, "This is the best writing in the piece."

Suddenly the bells started going off in my head. Maybe other people's writing was best when it was lyrical and poetic and ornate, but not mine. Mine was best when I was not trying so desperately hard to impress everyone.

There are all kinds of people in this world, which means there are all kinds of writers and styles of writing. Sometimes I hear people disparaging one style or another because of some idea they have of what "real" writing is or should be, calling all lyrical prose "flowery" or all sparse prose "simplistic". But saying, Why isn't this writing poetic and pretty? or Why isn't this writing straightforward and utilitarian? is a little like critiquing an apple for not being an orange, or vice versa.

That's not to say that we can't evaluate the quality of writing within a particular style-- I actually think this is an important skill to develop, or we will never be able to improve our own writing. But I do think it's important to first determine what sort of writing you're dealing with before you decide if it's well-executed or not. Lyrical prose succeeds when it's not overworked, when the comparisons within it are understandable but not cliche, when the writer has command over their words instead of letting them run wild across the page. And I think that simple prose succeeds when it's specific, precise, thoughtful, and its observations are not obvious.

To demonstrate, I have this paragraph from Raymond Carver's short story A Small Good Thing. (Side note: I looked for YA examples and then I got really nervous about defining a particular book as "sparse" when there's so much room in between, so I decided to just go with what I knew from school.):

"They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers."

This paragraph struck me as a good example because the sentences and words are all relatively simple, but there is something interesting and beautiful about them: "the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty," "icing knuckle-deep," "Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet." The examples that the baker offers us of his daily life are very specific, understandable but not obvious.

I am a sparse prose girl, and I, personally, don't improve as a writer by "fancying" up my prose, like I once thought. If you are a lyrical prose person, you don't necessarily improve as a writer by paring down your sentences to their barest elements, either. We don't have to yearn and long and pine for a different style than we have. Rather, we can improve by picking apart the writing of authors with similar styles who do it better than we do (for me there are a LOT of those, let me tell you), and trying to meet that criteria instead. I can improve by being more precise with my words, and by not leaning on the most obvious metaphors or similes or observations; by making my characters complicated even if their words and sentences are not; by watching for repetition and varying sentence structure-- in dozens of different ways, I can become a better writer, but the important thing is, I don't have to become a different writer.

It can be difficult to acknowledge that your voice will never sound just like your favorite authors' voices-- it won't, and if it does, that might not be such a good thing. But acknowledging that can be the first step to figuring out how you can become the best writer you can be, with the unique perspective that you have, instead of tearing yourself down for failing to meet someone else's standards. That doesn't mean we can't learn from writing that's different than ours; it just means we should embrace our own words, our own voices, our own stories.

(P.S. if you have good YA examples of particular writing styles, list them in the comments! They might be helpful for your fellow writers.)
Veronica Roth

Veronica is the author of the NYT bestselling YA dystopian thriller series Divergent, published by Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen Books. She's also a graduate of Northwestern University, a Christian, and A Tall Person, among other things.

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  1. This is such a good post, and very timely too! I've read a lot of books in recent months that made me question my ability as a writer, but none of them were the type of book that I'm writing. None of them were the same style as how I write. Thanks for reminding us that that's okay. :)

  2. I enjoyed this post. I love reading totally different styles of writing. When the writing works it pulls me into the story whether the writing is lyrical or lean. (Congrats on Divergent being filmed soon in Chicago. It will be BIG!)

  3. Thank you so much for articulating this!!!

  4. This is something I've struggled with for a while, and it wasn't until recently that I've started to realize that it's okay that my writing isn't flowery and poetic. For a long time now, I've been trying to make my voice sound like someone else's. Now I realize that trying to force my writing to be something it's not isn't helping me. It's just making writing more difficult.

    Thank you for this. It's always nice to see that someone else understands what you're going through. :)

  5. Great article, Veronica, and so true. I think we can all relate to what you're saying (I certainly can). It's part of our growth as writers to be have confidence in our own voice and style--to take the lessons we learn from others and incorporate them into who we are, not try to become someone else.

  6. Thank you for posting this, Veronica, it's definitely something that's always at the back of my mind when I write. I need to learn to stop-listening to that small voice of "not like that..." and do what I do, and do it in the best way that I possibly can.

    I have to say that I just finished reading DIVERGENT (again) and now INSURGENT and I admire your short prose, because I tend to be on the other end of the spectrum, but I can appreciate the beauty in cleverly chosen words that carry their own weight and beauty.

    Tahereh Mafi and Victoria Schwab are writers that I think are stylistically similar to my own, and I'd put them under the lyrical prose subheading.

  7. This was a brilliant post, Veronica, thank you. I'm a big fan of your writing style because the simplicity of the prose (which I mean in a nice way!) meant I never tripped over a sentence or had to re-read anything that had lost its meaning somewhere in the midst of flowery words! It's really what you want when you're reading action-packed stories because your focus can remain on the plot. I've found it difficult, too, to accept my writing style which I would put firmly in the "quaint" box. But attempts on my part to diverge (sorry, I just had to) ended up with writing I felt embarrassed by because it just wasn't me. Thanks for the confidence booster!

  8. I love this, thank you for writing. I'm a sparse prose girl too and the doubt creeps in when I read the flowery stuff and get intimidated.

  9. When a beta reader told me that my writing was simple yet in a poetic way and that she loved authors who wrote like that, I finally became comfortable in my sparse prose girl skin and am proud of it now. :) Great post.

  10. "Lyrical prose succeeds when it's not overworked, when the comparisons within it are understandable but not cliche, when the writer has command over their words instead of letting them run wild across the page. And I think that simple prose succeeds when it's specific, precise, thoughtful, and its observations are not obvious.
    I can become a better writer, but the important thing is, I don't have to become a different writer."

    Yes and yes! Brilliant (and simply, eloquently put).

  11. Thank you for posting this; it was extremely helpful and an overall brilliant piece. My prose is, I think, a mixture of lyrical and simplistic; I tend to like to over describe things. My writing style, I think, is similar to Cassandra Clare's or perhaps Veronica Roth's. I am also told that I write like John Green, who is probably my favourite YA author, so that's a massive compliment.

    Another great YA author is Melina Marchetta, although she's less heard of than the others. David Levithan is great, too, but his writing style varies from each text, which can be confusing.

    Anyway, thanks so much for this article, it really did make me realise things about my own writing.

  12. Such a wonderful post! Inspiring and insightful and makes me feel much better about sticking to the voices in my head as opposed to trying to match other's styles. :)

  13. Excellent post and something I really needed to hear right now! I always worry my voice isn't the right voice but it is my voice.

  14. I think this is such a wonderful post! I truly believe you've hit the nail on the head - we don't all write in the same way. Truly embracing how YOU write is an important factor in writing effectively.

  15. I have a very intelligent friend who conversationally uses SAT words, and it works. If I tried to do that, it would sound like I was trying too hard. I think the same applies to writing; we can always push for the right word choice, but sometimes it's a simple word, and not flowery prose. Lyrical text seems to flow naturally, and it's obvious when it's forced. Like you, I like clean, streamlined prose. I think that's just as much a challenge--to elicit an emotional reaction with fewer, more precise words.

  16. This is why I love Veronica Roth. In both her books, though the prose is sparse, her story, characters, and world are exquisitely complex. Most importantly, the questions raised by Divergent and Insurgent are endless and should be seriously considered by everyone, not just the books' teen readers. From that, I learned a great deal about specificity; word placement is crucial, as it is central to getting across what you're trying to say even if isn't clear why.

    I agree with everything in this post. Good job, Veronica. :)

  17. The most simple sentences are sometimes the best. Your post is very inspirational, and I can remember my Creative Writing college professor offering similar advice.

  18. Great post! I've been grappling with this for years!!:) thanks:):)

  19. Laini Taylor is definitely who I think of for really beautiful, lyrical prose. At times I feel inadequate when writing because my "voice" tends to be on the simpler side, which I too thought was worse somehow. I'm finally beginning to accept that that's just how I write.

  20. Such a great article... thanks for sharing! I've found that as long as I let others' writing be an inspiration (not an aspiration), I'm okay! There's nothing wrong with our own voices... and nothing wrong with learning how to embellish them, either! That's what we do when we write... we learn! :)


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  22. Great post. I'd been mulling over the difference in writing style between you and Lauren Oliver recently. When I read Lauren's work, I notice every word, sentence and paragraph because they're so beautifully written - it's almost like reading poetry. But, when I read your books, I don't think about the words, I just get immersed in the story and plot. Whilst both have merit, and I am in awe of Lauren's eleganty laid out prose, personally I prefer your writing style as I like to eacape into the fantasy world created on the page rather than being aware of the author whose words I'm reading. Simple, sparse prose works best for me.

  23. I spoke about simplistic writing not necessarily being 'bad' writing in a recent blogpost of my own and I strongly stick with that. Each person has their own style, and they write best in that style. Simplistic is easy to understand, lyrical prose is more imaginative and tends to require a bit of thinking. Different people will sometimes prefer one style to the other for their own reasons. But I think that something that should be looked at is whether or not the style of writing is too simplistic or too complicated for the plot or issues within a story.

  24. " critiquing an apple for not being an orange..." <-- I love this. Everyone has a slightly different writing style, and let's be honest -- everyone has a different preference for their own reading. I like experimenting with different styles in short stories, but all of my longer stories end up simply written. That's what feels most natural.

  25. Great post by an amazing author. Amazing advice for any writer. I loved it so much I had to share it on my Blog Love post. Thanks for sharing your insight. :)

  26. I completely agree with your comment about sticking with your own style. When writing my series of novels I kept going back and editing things so that they were more descriptive or more poetic, but at the end of the day it just didn't sound like me. I am a minimalist when I write. I find its easier to just get to the point and not try to decorate it up into something else. I think readers appreciate prose which is simple too. It allows them to get into a story quickly and maintain the pace throughout.


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Item Reviewed: Embracing Your Own Voice Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Veronica Roth