People come to me for help with various writing issues. I'm familiar with all the standards of modern publishing, at least for fiction. Mostly the same standards apply to all writing. Mostly, but not exactly. A lot of these things are easy to plug in to a manuscript that's already completed. It's normal to spend a few rounds revising a draft into a finished manuscript. I can easily mark and correct punctuation, change incorrectly used words to the correct ones, point out areas where there's too much summary narration (or telling) or not enough (or less often too much) explicit detail.
But the key to whether a story really stands out is the voice. The writer's voice. In the nineties, I used to go to book stores at least a couple of times a week looking for books that would appease my particular reading cravings. I would stalk up and down the aisles, mostly in the fantasy section, but also in any section where I'd had luck finding something good before. I would pull books off the shelves and flip them open to the first page of the story and begin reading. Whether I left the book store with a given book in hand was utterly dependent on whether the author's voice resonated with me. I would read far outside my comfort zone in terms of substance or genre if the voice held my attention.
So what is this voice thing, anyway? The voice is the writer's particular style, the quality of the writing that makes the writer unique. It's an expression of the way the writer thinks, her viewpoint and values, his way of looking at the world. This is the quality that makes you love a writer's work. It's kind of an invisible or barely noticeable aspect of writing. It's not anywhere you can specifically see it, in the way the plot is. It permeates the work. It's in the word choices. It's in the subtext. It's in what's left out. It's in the delicate details and the broad strokes. Voice is, for me, the measure of a writer's mastery of craft. Many other aspects of writing are technical. They can be fixed with rules. But voice isn't like that. It's like the flavor in a particular wine, depending on the grapes, the soil they grew in, how long it was fermented and in what kind of container. It's not predictable when you start out as a writer. You won't know what your voice is going to be like. It depends on how you develop it.
I had a conversation with Dan Wickline some time ago about acquired tastes. Numerous things that I like to eat I didn't like at first. Coffee without sugar. I was in my twenties before I actually liked its bitterness. Yogurt. It took me several times of tasting it over a couple of years to like it. Now I love both unsweetened coffee and yogurt. Developing your voice is in some ways very much like developing your palette. In order to get the most out of it, you need to experiment with what you like and don't like. You need to do this in your writing and in your reading.
When it's not there yet. Sometimes people send me things to edit which don't feel ready to be edited. Truthfully, I can edit anything. I can make anything better (unless it's already so good it just needs a light copy edit or a proof read.) Some things I can make much better. But one thing I can't fix in a novel is the writer's voice. If it's not there yet, I can only point it out. The stories that I see that I think are very likely to get interest from publishers have a very strong and interesting voice. These stories attract publishers and agents in spite of flaws, sometimes quite significant flaws. There are many aspects of the writing craft that you can fake. You can get there with an editor or a book or a class. You can do the grammar stuff. You can get rid of passive voice, you can get rid of tags, you can get rid of slips of point of view. But voice is the martial arts aspect of the writing. It's a very individual practice. It will come when it comes. You can get closer to it with work and reading and breaking down things that appeal to you. But it's not something you're likely to get a grasp on overnight.
It requires work. And an underdeveloped voice is the most likely reason a story won't appeal to an agent or publisher. As much as good grammar and lovely sentences are important, they are not the thing that will make people want to read your story. YOU are the thing that will make people want to read your story. The way you tell it. The way you think. When you write, you're showing people the inside of your head. If you haven't quite developed this skill yet, the writing will seem flat and awkward. Even if all the sentences are perfect. Even if, on the surface, the story is interesting enough. Reading is receiving information on a lot of different channels at once. Our minds are delicately tuned to a vast array of indicators of meaning. A story does not tell itself. A book doesn't tell a story. A person tells a story to another person.If you remove yourself from the writing, it will lose its magic.
Find your persona as a writer in the same way you would as an actor, except find it in the written word instead of the spoken word.
Generally, there are phases to this finding. Most writers start out trying to sound writerly. Bigger words. Particular words. Because they've seen them somewhere or because this is how they perceive writing to work. That's a stage you have to get over. And you will if you continue down the path.
Writers who have a very defined, very appealing voice have generally worked at it for years. I use Warren Ellis as an example. It doesn't matter what he's writing, he has a very fetching voice. You want to know what he's going to say next because his manner draws you in on the page. You feel like he's telling his story directly to you. Now, when Mr. Ellis was a young teenager, he had a severe knee injury. He wasn't very mobile for a few years. And because he's from eons ago, there were no internets back then, so he was forced to read and write or go stark raving mad. So now he's been writing for thirty years. And you can tell.
But really, do I have to wait thirty years? No. Of course not. But just expect your voice not to necessarily have reached its full potential. Write a lot. Read a lot. Everyone says it and I'll say it again. Read widely. Make yourself read things that are outside your narrow tastes. Acquire new tastes. Read books translated from other languages. Don't be a genre snob (including literary, which is as much a genre as any other.) Write and get feedback on your writing.
A mentor or a writing course can help you progress faster than you will on your own. But you can do it on your own if you're dedicated.
It will come in layers, as little epiphanies and as disappointments when the epiphanies don't come. The only thing that seems to be a requirement is that you be open to your writing changing, growing, and you put the time and effort in by giving your brain the proper food (books of good writing and books about writing) and outlet: write.Those who are determined not to change anything, but to prove that their way is THE way are, in my experience, least likely to make progress in developing their voices.
I wrote a lot when I was a kid. I thought I was good at it then, of course. I had no idea what I was doing. I have two graduate degrees in writing. During the first course, I learned a huge amount. During the second course, I learned just how amazing the first course had been. But my skills at writing and editing have been developed over most of the past twenty years. Of course, I'm not done learning. You will never be done learning. And the moment you are, you might as well turn in your golden pencil. It's ongoing. It's about the instant of perception. Your voice turns on who you are moment to moment.
Further reading: If you want something cogent with specific exercises to help you and not my ramblings, read this: http://hollylisle.com/ten-steps-to-finding-your-writing-voice/