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Let me preface this by saying I am quite young as writers go, only 20.

Oftentimes as I am writing, I find myself simulating the style of whatever I most recently read-- sometimes the clipped and mysterious prose of Murakami, sometimes the very direct and simple writing of Harry Potter or any number of action/mystery books, sometimes (quite badly) the old-fashioned and elaborately detailed wording of Joyce or Henry James.

The problem is I find it equally easy to do all of these. I'm not saying I do it very well; simply that they all feel natural to me as I'm channeling them.

The problem is that I do it all of the time. I really have no idea what my actual, personal voice sounds like in narrative writing.

How long does it take to develop such a thing, and how can you help yourself to move in that direction?

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5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Being affected by what media you are currently consuming is not an uncommon problem and, I would say, not necessarily even a bad thing. The key next step is to try to internalize the styles, to really pick them apart. Figure out what is happening on the page and why that is so effective. Start to ask the important questions:

  • Why did the author choose this style over any other?
  • Which elements of this style work best? Or worst?
  • Which elements of this style appeal most to you? Or least?

Then write. Just write and write and write. Move around in styles and genres and mediums. Go wild. Don't worry about editing or censoring yourself. Exploration is just for you. Later, you will be able to go back and edit these pieces down to perfection. The more you write, the more you are going to find the facets that you like.

Then go back and reread what you wrote. Ask yourself the same questions you asked when reading Joyce. Parts will make you laugh or cringe or shake your head, but the best bits will be immediately apparent. A word, a phrase, a structure that just feel right to you. The kind of thing that you will want to use again.

That's your style.

Update:

I should have stated this explicitly, but this process will take many years and hard work. Part of the problem is at any given point, you will think you have found your style and you will go back to your older pieces, read them over, shake your head and mumble, "Oh man, what was I thinking?"

"Style" is an incredibly finicky thing. It's slippery. It evolves. As Patches states in his answer, your experience will inform your style. Hemingway, who has one of the most recognizable styles in literature, was not stagnant. His prose stays terse and repetitive, but it grows and refines. Between "The Sun Also Rises" (1926) and "Old Man and the Sea" (1951), he is a different person and therefore he writes differently.

That said, he thought A LOT about writing. For him, it was all there was (other than drinking and ladies and being sad...). Everything he did was largely to inform his writing. If you want to really find your style, you have to work for it. But that's the fun part.

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Good advice. Maturing as a writer takes a few years. Given your (questioner's) age, don't worry about finding a style just yet. Write as much as you can; use whatever style you think is appropriate to each piece or whatever style you're in the mood for at the time. With time, as you reread your old work, you'll begin to get a feel for the direction in which you want to go. –  HNL Apr 13 '12 at 7:38
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Is a personal voice really necessary? Not always.

You shouldn't worry about your style, as long as:

  • It sounds natural (and you don't sound like you're actively trying to imitate someone else)
  • Your style matches the theme of your novel; (for example, semi-archaic English doesn't really fit an action thriller)
  • Your work is clear and understood;
  • You use correct grammar.

If you think about it, all styles are made of 95% of the same genetic material, so there's nothing wrong with not having a totally unique style.

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The reason you don't have your own voice yet is because you haven't developed it yet. That's not a knock - there are very, very few writers that have a unique voice at age 20. It's just not something you can develop in a short amount of time. Damon Knight, in Creating Short Fiction, wrote that most people won't really be good until they're at least 30.

That's a tidbit you'll chafe mightily against now, at 20; you'll love it at 35. :-)

Joel's answer already covers quite well how to work toward your own voice in your writing. I'll add one thing: experience. Not writing experience, I mean life experience. The purpose of writers is to give voice to the things people feel but can't express. To make sense of it all, even if that sense is pure fiction.

So how do you accelerate this a bit? Go to odd and unusual places, do odd and unusual things, and most of all, seek out odd and unusual people.

Then drink it all in.

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A great way to discover your style is to force yourself to exhibit it. And a great way to force yourself to exhibit your style is to write with one habit tied behind your back. Or tied up and locked in the basement. But definitely tied up.

The idea is: Pick one habit, temporarily forbid it, and rewrite a short piece without being able to lean on that habit.

Here are some habits, and some ways to temporarily tie them up:

  • To be. Rewrite a piece without any form of the verb to be. If you can't use to be, you force yourself to think about your other verbs, and some other parts of speech, and the way you construct sentences. Then rewrite again using what you've learned, and using to be if you want to.

  • Adjectives and adverbs. Rewrite a piece with no adjectives. Or with no adverbs. For extra credit, rewrite with none of either. This forces you to think about the kinds of color that modifiers add, and forces you to find other ways to paint with those colors. Choosing better nouns and verbs, perhaps. Or playing with sentence structures. Or fragments. Then rewrite again using what you've learned, and using modifiers if you want to.

  • Sentence structure. Rewrite a piece using sentences no longer than 10 words (or seven words if 10 is too easy). Rewrite the same piece using sentences no shorter than 20 words (or 30 or 35 if 20 is too easy). Then rewrite again using what you've learned about sentence lengths and structures.

  • Excessive extra extraneous words and wordiness. Yah, you gotta have 'em. But how many? And which ones? Take a piece that's about 700 words long. Delete one tenth of the paragraphs (round up). Then delete one tenth of the remaining sentences. Then delete one tenth of the remaining words. Notice what you've lost. Count the words and remember the count. If it's more than 500 words, keep cutting, and count again. Your final count is now your word limit. Rewrite your piece to add back in everything you've lost, but without exceeding your word limit. This forces you to find more compact ways to say what you're trying to say, and to create the effects you're trying to create.

By tying a habit behind your back, you force yourself to rethink how you overrely on that habit. You have to find other ways to create the same effects. And by playing with other ways, you learn all kinds of stuff about how words and sentences and sonority and rhythms and punctuation work. And you learn how to choose those things deliberately, instead of out of habit.

And by choosing deliberately, you discover your style.

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wow, that is FANTASTIC. I wish I could give this more than +1. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 12 '12 at 10:11
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CS Lewis said: "No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." That seems like a good rule of thumb for style as well as substance.

I think the fact that you have the urge to "channel" other people's styles, and are able to do it regularly, means you're well on the way to becoming a writer. (That's hearsay; I never could mimic styles myself.) From everything I've heard and read, it's cool, you're building skills, and you'll eventually find your own voice. Don't watch the clock or the calendar, or you'll go crazy -- let it happen at its own pace. Meanwhile keep it simple and clear, don't decorate. Good luck!

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