As he loses his voice to cancer, Christopher Hitchens writes about the idea of literary voice:
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class can talk? I mean, really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect.
I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
College was the first time I started writing how I speak.
Or, more accurately, college was when I stopped trying to write the way I thought I should write. Whether through explicit instruction (topic sentences, Roman outlines) or imitative insecurity (we all had a Hemingway phase), any unique quality in my prose had been flattened. The occasional quirks were mostly borrowed from Spy magazine, whose pithy precision I worshipped without really understanding.
A freshman year newswriting class probably changed me more than anything. J54 taught us how to align fact-bearing sentences in a deliberate pyramid structure so that the story could be truncated at any point without losing its meaning.
We learned the rules. We wrote the articles. The process was almost automated; given the same facts, any two news writers should generate very much the same story.
I hated it. I revolted. Why should I waste my time writing something anyone else could have churned out?
Writing isn’t harder than speaking, but it’s lonelier. It’s a conversation with someone who isn’t there.
When you’re writing, you end up hearing your own voice a lot. I think that’s why so many people struggle with it. We don’t like to be alone with our thoughts. They scare us. But in the same way people don’t stutter when talking to a dog, it helps to envision a friendly reader at the far side. Let writing be talking with someone you like.