August 20, 2012

guest post: improving your voice

To Improve Your Voice, Just Listen
R.K. MacPherson

Writers love tricks. Anything that can make us better at what we do, preferably with less work, is something worth learning. To that end, I shall share with you the secrets my editors instilled in me through beatings patient instruction. Writing remains a process with both reductive and additive elements, but knowing which to use—and when—is part of the art of writing. These three tips can help you put them into effect.

1. When reviewing and revising your work, take the time to sound it out—literally. Dialogue, in particular, benefits from this because your ear picks up on awkward constructs and overall drek. Read your words aloud as you revise. Not only will you spot the clumsy sentences you laid down in the first draft, but you’ll also catch repeated words or phrasing.

2. After you’ve made your first revisions, send your work out to at least five people. Ideally, only one of these would be a friend or family member. Let’s face it, parents aren’t the most objective people in the world. They see being supportive and encouraging as part of their job, so they’re not going to tell you that your dialogue sounds like you copied and pasted from Facebook, or that your plot twist was about as surprising as water being wet.

Instead, pick on your ever-growing circle of writer contacts, or people who read your blog, but aren’t invested in you as a person. Frankly, I’d say send it to an enemy if I thought I’d get honest feedback. Also, pick at least one person who doesn’t read that particular genre—if only to find out if it makes any sense to them. Regardless of who you choose, when these generous people give you their feedback, listen to it. Don’t act on it right away, but do pay attention to it. Then revise again, using that input.

3. Listen to yourself. Learn to separate your inner Dashiell Hammett from your insecurities. If part of your work feels incomplete, or worse, then figure out why. Don’t just gloss over it. Reward your instincts by trusting them. If a plot line feels forced, ask yourself what could help it fit in more naturally, or if it should be cut. Go over your work with care, but always listening for your inner voice.

In the end, the stories you tell belong to you. You control the words, but if the feedback you get tells you something sticks out, or something feels wrong, instead of defending why you think it’s fantastic, think about why they don’t see it the way you do. I promise you that the fault lies between your keyboard and your chair, so use the things you hear to help you clarify your vision. It might well be that your beta readers didn’t see something because you didn’t express it well. So listen to them and rework your words. Alternately, it might be that no one else sees a problem with your novel—but they don’t get the “Holy crap!” moment you intended. Listen to yourself, and find a way to rework the story so they get that experience.

Like chefs, writers combine a bit of art, a bit of science, and a lot of instinct. Even so, smart chefs have people test their dishes before they put them on the menu.

So should we.


R. K. MacPherson, author of Antigone’s Fall, is a Seattle-based writer. He received his B.A. from Pacific Lutheran University and did graduate work in anthropology at Eastern New Mexico University. He began his writing career in the video game industry (Aion; TERA). He's traveled and worked around the world, but loves life in the Pacific Northwest, where he works on his next novel. Follow him on Twitter!


  1. Writing is, as they say, a solitary vice. No matter how good I think I am, there's nothing like feedback to make me stand back from my precious prose and take another look. Then I depend on "the voices" to tell me what needs to happen.

    I think Neil Gaiman said that while your friends may be able to tell something doesn't work for them, they won't necessarily know what's broken, or what YOU need to do to fix it.

    Great post, Mr. MacPherson.

  2. Thanks, Brooke, for Mr. MacPherson's post today. I know I personally struggle with listening to my voice (darn you Inner Critic Extraordinaire). But I've learned to be open-mined with the feedback I receive. In many cases, we find constructive critics tend to pick out the same thing to improve upon. That's a strong hint that something just might needa tweak :-)

    And thanks, Brooke, for your support.

  3. Every comment I get back on a piece gets plowed back into the whole. I had a couple new readers at the start of this year who really helped me pin down a narrative flaw, and I'm indebted to them for it. Another set really helped me get my novel into fighting trim, and I'm hoping those efforts pay off as well.