From the age of fifteen to about twenty-eight, I was obsessed with the idea of originality, which to me translated as style (when I was painting) or voice (when I was writing). Now that I feel more confident as a writer, I worry less about being original--I just try to write what I want to write. The cool part is that, I think the less we try to be original, the more original we become.
Yesterday I talked about not trying, the idea that if you just relax and approach writing naturally, you will end up using your own voice. Today, I'm discussing something similar, but it is a distinct strategy in my mind. This is the idea of writing defensively, which is not as bad as it sounds.
It's hard to write a perfect paragraph, never mind using the perfect voice. Your first drafts might have too much telling, or not enough telling. It might have too much description, or not enough description, etc. As you revise, you try to balance these things out. You try to use language that doesn't sound too vague or too formal. You try to make the dialog sound more natural, or more funny, or more whatever. The idea is that you try to fix all these things that are broken with your earlier draft. You don't have time to worry about using any sort of voice; you're really just trying not to sound like a stupid loser. (My language seems to have become more crude. I blame it on writer Scott G. F. Bailey, who made me start my Tuesday morning with the word bitchcakes.)
Anyway, as you are just trying your best to cobble together that most primitive of competent stories, your unique voice naturally emerges as a consequence of trying not to do anything wrong. Everyone has their own idea of what is ideal. I have a concept of how much description I like in a story that may be different, even if just by 0.0002675% from the next writer. Given all the different elements that make up voice, the likelihood of any two people having the same combination of preferences for all of these elements is tiny, probably 0. (Ever notice how no two people give you the same critique?) Just fix what's broken and, voila, you have a voice!
So, I guess I see today's idea working with yesterday's idea this way: First, you start a story by trying to free yourself of all those other influences you admire. You don't try to copy anyone or build off of anyone. You just be yourself. Then, as you revise, you strive to fix all those things that you find wrong with your writing. As a result, you end up with that rare combination of technical elements that only you think is perfect. Thus, without trying to have a unique voice, you end up having a unique voice.
More and more I read about how important voice is to agents and publishers. I'm not sure if what I'm advocating is in line with them. For me, as someone who usually writes in third person, the voice I'm seeking is the narrator's voice, which more often than not is what I consider MY voice. I think a lot of times agents are looking for character voices, either from narrator characters or from the characters in the story, such as when something is told in first person. I think this sort of voice has an extra step in that the writer must be able to step into that character before speaking. But, once you are there, then I would guess that it's again a matter of relaxing and trying to write as naturally as possible from that different point of view. I've only done this a few times, but that has been my experience.