Whenever I teach lessons about “writing voice” in my classes, I end up talking about singing. I love to sing and have learned a ton about it since I became the lead singer in my very amateur band, No Ambition. We are very amateur, but we do like to practice, and we’re always getting better. (I think the magic of our shows isn’t necessarily that we are good, but that we are way, way better each time we play. We have a narrative arc, like Dancing With the Stars.) My partner in the band, Melissa, also happens to be a professional opera singer and sometime voice coach, so she always has great advice for me. (Yes, our professional singer is our drummer, and our non-professional singer is our singer; I told you we were amateur.) Little adjustments make big differences, especially when you’re first learning a craft.
We call it writing voice for a reason. It really is about how writing “sounds,” even though it’s printed on a page and only “sounds” in the writer’s, and then the reader’s, head. Lots of what works for singing voice works for writing voice; I also find that because singing is a physical act we’ve all tried at least once in our lives, sometimes thinking about voice first from a singing perspective can help us all understand adjustments we can make in our writing voice.
Because of my interest in both kinds of voice, I’ve gotten really into reading this blog, Vocal Articles, an offshoot of New York Vocal Coaching. The post that caught my eye today was “Don’t Park and Bark,” which addresses the phenomenon of “those that just stand and sing, paying no attention whatsoever to the words they are singing, but instead just trying to impress with vocal acrobatics.” Well, writers, we are just as guilty of this in our own way. Many of my students do this thing where they look up normal words in the thesaurus and cram the fancier versions of these words into their writing, thinking this makes it better. Great words are great; totally sign up for word-a-day emails and get comfortable with them. But they need to come out of you in a natural, authentic way, not as a means of distracting readers from your writing — with your writing.
It’s a pet peeve of mine when I see teenagers with great voices on American Idol or The Voice, trying to sing deep, dark lyrics clearly out of their range of life experience. They can nail the notes, but they can’t connect to the words. I’d rather watch and listen to an expressive singer with an okay voice than a dead-inside one with a great voice. I think the same is true in writing; if they come from a real place, the most ordinary words can reach inside you. And the fanciest writing can leave you bored and cold. Of course you want to be taken seriously. Of course you want to sound smart. But focus on presenting serious, smart ideas then; and do it in your own, authentic words.