Monday, 9 July 2012

Online writing forums and the development of the writer's 'voice'

Online writing forums are wonderful things. Really they are. I use Absolute Write a lot but I am sure there are tons more. Sure they eat up time and lots of the writing is mediocre and some of the opinions and advice unhelpful. But these problems are massively outweighed by the tremendous benefits of putting writers in touch with each other, letting creativity and talent magnify and grow and feed off each other.

Well sort of. Because inherent in these forums (fora? I'll settle for forums) are a series of contradictions for an aspirant writer to navigate. There's the tension between mutual congratulation and one-upmanship for instance. Almost by definition the people who contribute the most to these forums are those who have yet to achieve real success as writers. This provides for a sense of community certainly, and there is a lot of genuine emphasis on mutual support. On the other hand it is very hard not to seek weaknesses in everyone else's work, simply because it makes you feel better, and as the phenomenon of internet trolling has shown, the distance that the internet provides does allow for a higher degree of cruelty than would be possible in a face-to-face encounter. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing of course. Sometimes that sort of directness is the only thing to make you realise that what you have submitted is actually pretty shit.

Another tension is around the reasons people spend their time on these forums. On the one hand they are an invaluable tool in the service of a writer wishing to improve their style, both by having their work critted and by critting that of others. On the other it is perfectly clear that being on the forum is a guilty pleasure for most- something they do when they should be working. They become big online societies like any other, with their humour, their letting off steam, their politics and their feuds. All fascinating to absorb yourself in and a great way to put off writing.

But for me the biggest contradiction is around the issue of 'voice.' For those not in the writing and/or reading world (though why on earth you would read this if you weren't...) voice is the indefinable but essential quality of an author's writing that sets them apart and makes them unique. Without a distinctive and powerful voice, one is told on these forums, no agent will consider your work.

And yet these online communities have also worked to instil a conformity in writing style that I am sure is orders of magnitude greater than any that existed before. At the moment the received wisdom is that sparseness and leanness is what you want. Cut down the adverbs and adjectives. Pleonasms are beyond the pale (and if you had to look up 'pleonasms' then don't worry, so did I. It means a formulation involving redundant words, like 'burning fire.')

It goes beyond this though. Wherever you look on these forums you will get the same sort of (excellent) advice: don't have your character 'walk quickly' out of the room if they can 'stride' or 'storm' or even 'hurry' out. Each of these contains the sense of 'walk quickly' but does so in a single word, and conveys something more too. And while you're at it, don't bother to have them 'stride purposefully' because the idea of purposefulness is inherent in the verb stride. You can't stride hesitantly. The same people will go over whole passages for you and point out entire sentences that are redundant or could be subsumed in a single phrase, or even word. Pretty soon you end up being able to do it yourself.

Now I have nothing against this sort of advice at all. It is excellent and the internet permits it to spread with the speed and efficacy of an air-born virus. The thing is, how is the ubiquity of a similar set of pieces of advice consistent with the development of a unique 'voice'?

Well to return to a theme I have explored in a number of posts (imagery for instance, or symbols) I think the key is in the image we use to describe what we mean here: the image of a human voice, telling a story. I think our species is hard-wired to respond to the sound of a voice telling a story. For millenia before literacy was widespread it was how we engaged with fiction and I think it has become a process akin to telepathy. I know that sounds far-fetched, but it is instructive for instance actually to listen to children telling each other stories. The spoken words transcribed are often close to meaningless yet everyone present gets the story completely. In the same way, when I used to read a book to a class (up to A level, even) I would begin to see students round the room dropping their texts and simply listening. And for the first time the story would really make sense to them.

Because if you listen to a piece of writing being read to you by someone who really gets it then, unbeknownst to you, all sorts of things beyond the words themselves somehow get communicated too, bypassing your conscious mind perhaps, but no less powerful for all that. The challenge for a writer of course is to imbue the words themselves with that same magic, so that the reader's internal voice can give them the same cues that you no doubt would if you were reading the text aloud to them.

And that is where the real value of these online forums lies. You see when you read your own writing then the voice you hear it read in is your own, and you get it (or hopefully you do. If you don't then stick it in the bin NOW). And if your friends or family read your work then they will hear it in your voice too, and will unconsciously imbue it with the meaning they know you see in it. But if another contributor to an online forum reads it, then they have no extraneous 'voice' of yours to read it in, so the words have to stand absolutely by themselves. And if they don't, then those same contributors will not hesitate to tell you.

And it can be a salutary lesson to learn. Except of course I should cut out the 'to learn' bit, because that's redundant, isn't it?


  1. Good post. I do agree about the spoken word - poetry is so much more potent read aloud, and that's where the rhythm of great prose becomes apparent.
    What is your username on AW? I'm on there as Flyingtart but don't post much any more.

  2. I'm anguswalker (original, eh?)