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  • Elizabeth McIvor

How to Develop your Writing Voice

My advice? Become a magpie.


What do writers and magpies have in common? Well, we both tend to squawk in irritation if bothered and we tend to like shiny things. Maybe there's also something in there about skipping or strutting to get places...?


I'm losing my metaphor, hang on.


To be clear, when I say be a magpie, I don't mean abandon your human life and go live in a tree (however tempting that might be sometimes). What I mean is to take on all the shiny things you find when reading as your own.


No, I'm not encouraging direct plagiarism. Not only is that tacky, but it will ultimately only harm you. Plagiarising, or straight up stealing, a piece of writing means you haven't exercised your own abilities. It's like posting someone else's latest run time as your own but wondering why your cardio sucks.

Being a magpie as a writer means spotting a shiny thing and incorporating it into your nest, your nest in this case being your writing voice/style. There's a reason that the best advice I can give a client who is struggling with some aspect of their writing is to tell them to read a book where that element is done well.

We see the shiny thing, we adopt it as our own, and then work it into our nest of little ideas, style quirks, and writing voice.

Let's give you a glimpse behind the curtain into my own practices. Whenever I'm writing action sequences, particularly large battles, I will often use a little style trick I noticed as a teenager in Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series. Set in the Napoleonic war, Cornwell had to deal with huge, often famous battles, in practically every book. Sometimes there were multiple battles per book.


In a situation like that, it's easy to get lost in the sheer size of the event, ensuring historical accuracy, and still keeping the reader connected with the story.


I noticed that Cornwell would often have minor characters pop up in a book, perhaps interacting with the main characters, or sometimes just being described in a little bit of detail during the setting of the scene. It would be insignificant; just a quick bit of worldbuilding.


However, in those large battles, those minor characters would pop up again. Perhaps only for a sentence. Sometimes they were dead. Sometimes they were alive and briefly interacted with the main characters again. Yet I noticed how revisiting that minor character, even just for a moment, not only added extra personal stakes to this historical event that after pages of weaponry and manoeuvre detail might feel abstract to the reader, but it had the effect of drawing the reader down from their omniscient, cinematic view above the action into the blood and mud of the scene.


It's a technique I've "magpied" for my personal writing, pushing it into the nest of my style and voice to suit my needs. Personally, it's one of my favourites that I've collected over the years.


What's a quirk, technique, or element of style you've "magpied" for your own writing? Leave a comment to share with all the other magpies!



Image credit: Photo by Rossano D'Angelo on Unsplash

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