[by Barry Schwartz]
How Writers – And Photographers – Develop A Voice It might go like this: a photographer makes a photo for himself or herself, not on assignment, and posts it on their website simply because it pleases them or they want to get hired to do similar work. No matter; the image represents who the photographer is. A photo buyer happens to see it and shows it to a client because the image suggests a solution to a problem the buyer and their client are trying to solve: a story they need to tell the client’s customers. They hire the photographer to develop that story.
Here is the chain: the photographer > the art buyer > the art buyer’s client > the art buyer’s client’s customer > now back to the photographer, the art buyer, and all the way back to the client’s customer again. So now, when the photographer is out doing their job (developing the story); instead of simply making a photo for themself, they have a specific audience they are paid to please. And themselves, of course, which is where they started in the first place: they got hired to tell this story because of their voice. Like photographs, writing projects are a voice, good or bad, practiced or accidental, focused or aimless, a voice nonetheless. Good photographs obey the same mandate as good writing: clarity, nuance, and detail. Clarity makes it easy to understand. Nuance gives it depth. Detail makes it relatable. Voice.
The best writers will tell you they write to please themselves, and the fact they may also envision their readers during the process in no way rebuts that fact, because the assumption is that someone other than the writer will eventually read the work. A photographer’s professional writing may be non-fiction: a bio on a website, a letter of introduction to a potential client, a caption, a blog post about recent work. It might also be fiction: text applied to a storyboard to explain a concept that illustrates a story they want to sell to an art buyer. Voice develops from intention: Is the writing simply to please yourself? Is the writing to sell yourself? Is it to sell a concept? Is it to document what happened while a photo was being made to enable an editor to write a caption or description? Clarity, nuance, and detail: voice supports the story and the story supports the voice. Good writing is not reductive, it does not have to clarify every little thing. It’s a bad idea to make the reader feel stupid, for instance, but there is nothing wrong with making people look up a definition.
John McPhee is widely considered a writer’s writer, on staff at The New Yorker (arguably the most well-written magazine in the country) for over fifty years, a Pulitzer Prize winner, still going strong in his 80s, and there are words in every article that make me reach for a dictionary. His writing is so irresistible, I don’t care; his voice so seductive, I had to cure myself of trying to copy it. He doesn’t use those unfamiliar words to impress. He uses them because they are the best words he can find, and like a good photographer he works hard. He is a craftsman. People respond to McPhee’s writing like they respond to a good photo. There is a compelling personality projecting the stories he tells. (It does not hurt that he sounds like a guy you’d want to have a drink with.) McPhee’s writing is specific to him: clarity, nuance, and detail: his voice.
Everybody’s writing, good or bad, embodies those three attributes. Good writing is the result of the work that goes into it, and what is represented is the writer’s voice.
Barry Schwartz is a photographer, writer, and educator in Los Angeles and San Francisco who is unrepining in his use of Roget’s (paper!) Thesaurus.