As content writers who sell our services to businesses and agencies, we have to make sure that each piece we write speaks to its intended audience, while also satisfying the needs of the project owners. One of the most important parts of our job is finding the right “voice” for each project that we do. But what does “voice” really mean?
Voice is one of the key ingredients of any piece of writing, but it’s also surprisingly tough to define. Interestingly the simplest way to nail down what voice really means is by asking another question: “Who is saying what’s being written, and who are they saying it to?” Think about it—when you take the time to figure out who is speaking, and for what purpose, it’s far easier to deconstruct the tone and the purpose of just about any piece of writing.
Here at KCWMS, we do a lot of work on the front end of every project to ensure that we know what the client wants a particular piece to accomplish, and who its intended audience will be. In crafting the unique voice of a piece, we have to consider things like point of view, tone, vocabulary, language, personality, and style.
But defining the right voice for a project is something that every writer has to contend with—whether they’re writing website content, poetry, a screenplay, or a novel. So to get a feel for how other writers tackle the challenges that we face, we approached Vivian Lee, Staff Writer on the ABC Family TV series Stitchers, to talk about her work, her process, and how she goes about writing all the different characters and voices that make up a TV series.
KCWMS: To start, could you tell us a little bit about how the writing process works for you—from story concept in the writing room to the individual writing work and back again?
Vivian Lee: Each writers’ room is different. On the show I’m working on now—a show that is both serialized and procedural (case of the week)—individual writers bring ideas on types of cases into the room. If the showrunner clicks to the idea, the group brainstorms how that case might lay out in an episode and discusses potential thematic resonance the case could have for our main characters. The showrunner assigns episodes to writers. The writers come up with loglines and “story arenas” (broad synopses) of their episodes for studio’s and network’s approval. Once that story is approved, the writers break the story in the room with the group, then that writer of the episode goes off on their own to write the outline. The outline is sent to Studio/Network for notes. After their notes, the writer goes off to write a “writer’s draft.” Once that is done, the writer turns it into the Showrunner, who does his/her pass. That draft (Studio/Network Draft) is sent to Studio/Network for notes. The writer of the episode implements the notes and once the Showrunner has looked at the new revisions, the script is ready to become a Production Draft (which means it goes to everyone: cast, crew, Studio & Network.) Revisions will come up, due to a variety of stuff (limitation of the location, wardrobe changes, standard and practices “no-nos,” etc.). The episode gets a read-thru with the actors, writers, dept. heads, and Studio & Network so everyone can hear how the script sounds coming from the actors’ mouths. Adjustments are made after that, and then we shoot the episode!
KCWMS: As a screenwriter on a network television show, how do you identify your audience?
Vivian: Depending on what network airs the show, that’s how we identify our audience. For example, the show I’m writing on is an ABC Family show (soon to be called “Free Form”). ABC Family’s audiences tend to be Millennials or Generation Z females—so we try to craft storylines with them in mind: current pop trends, issues that young females face, dreams and aspirations they have. Our show features strong, science-minded, females who solve cases—so we write towards that—keeping in mind not to fall victim to stereotypes and less-than-admirable traits.
KCWMS: How much of yourself or your own voice finds its way into the characters and dialogue you write, if any?
Vivian: As television writers, our job is to deliver scripts that are in the Showrunner/Creator’s voice. To do that, we read/study the scripts the Showrunner wrote and watch/re-watch episodes of the show. In the room, we pay attention to how the Showrunner/Creator describes his characters. Individuals writers do slip in their own voice once in a while, but only if it fits with the tone of that scene/character.
KCWMS: If you get feedback from a producer, how do you handle those notes when you feel their requests are not in alignment with a character’s voice?
Vivian: Again, defer to the Showrunner/Creator, who is also the producer on the show. If he/she gives you notes, you take the note. Your job is to serve his/her vision. Now if there is something that you truly disagree with, you can discuss it with the Showrunner/Creator—but at the end of the day, it’s what they want.
KCWMS: Do you ever struggle with matching or managing audience expectations of certain characters or voices?
Vivian: Personally, I believe writers can’t give audiences what they want. Instead, I think it’s better to focus on giving the audience what they need. Audiences never want anything bad to happen to their favorite characters. They want them to fall in love, get their dream job, never face death, etc. But that doesn’t make good TV (and isn’t true to life). We have to tease the audience, put characters in situations to see how they survive (or not), force characters to make hard decisions, etc. That is how we build good stories. That’s how we create characters that our audience can identify with and/or aspire to become. Or not.
In talking with Vivian, we were surprised at how closely much of her process mirrors our own here at KCWMS. Our clients trust us to be able to identify the needs of their audience, and to write a piece that meets those needs, in a voice that speaks to their audience while still maintaining the purpose and identity of our client’s brand. So while there may be a lot of other differences between writing for television and the kind of content writing that we do, when it comes to the challenges of defining voice, we all strive to strike a balance between the needs of our audience and those of our clients, while ensuring that each piece has the right voice to serve both.
We’re very grateful to Vivian Lee for stopping by to answer our questions and share some insights into her process. If you’d like to keep up with Vivian’s work, you can follow her on Twitter @theviv86 and catch Stitchers Season 2 premiering in the spring 2016!
by Steve J. Scearce