Today I’m going to tackle one of the trickiest topics in writing—voice.
We’ve probably all heard agents, editors, and even reviewers talk about an author’s “voice,” but what do they mean by that? More importantly, how do we, as writers, develop our own voice?
What Is Voice?
Voice is some combination of an author’s outlook, worldview, and sensibility married to the way they tell a story—their syntax, sentence length, degree of formality in expression, relative use of dialog, description, and action, etc.
Any discussion of voice (including this one, I’m sure) can be confusing because voice is partly innate (it springs from your subconscious), and partly a craft element that you can deliberately develop.
Why Is Voice Important?
Voice is critical because the publishing industry and readers are always looking for new, fresh voices. If you accept that there are a finite number of basic stories in the universe, then it’s how the story is told that gives the old plots a (sellable) twist.
It’s easy to confuse a character’s voice with the author’s voice, especially if you write in first person. However, they’re not the same, although there might be some overlap. Your voice will carry through all your fiction, changing a bit if you switch genres, or as you mature; a character’s voice is specific to a particular book or series.
Developing Your Unique Author’s Voice
1. Write a personal essay
Write a 250-500 word personal essay or journal entry on a topic of your choice. Try not to think consciously about voice as you do. (I know—once you decide not to think about something, it’s all you think about. If you’re having trouble with that, find an essay or piece of free writing you’ve written recently—maybe even a long Facebook post on a topic you care about, or an email to a friend.) Write the essay before reading any further.
No, really. Stop reading this. Write.
Okay, you’re back, assignment completed. Now:
2. Examine the essay
- What topic did you choose? Your topic speaks to who you are. Is it a humorous take on the shallowness of reality TV or a more serious piece on motherhood, immigration, or existentialism?
- Look at the mechanics. Do you have short, pithy sentences, or long, multi-clause ones? Do you use poetic language and metaphors, or are you more straightforward? Is your vocab simple, or does the reader need to have a dictionary nearby?
- What about the tone? Is the piece warm and personal, or distant and clinical? Humorous or dead serious? Does a spirit of hopefulness or a sense of “all is lost” pervade the piece?
- Think about how you felt writing it. Was it fun? Satisfying? Were you engaged in it? When you reread it, are you nodding or laughing or in any other way approving of what you wrote? Or are you bored or annoyed with it, thinking it sounds pretentious or shallow?
This one exercise can reveal oodles about your worldview and voice. If your topic choice and tone tend toward the serious, then your natural voice is probably not going to sound like Janet Evanovich. If your topic was frivolous and your tone light-hearted, trying to write like Anthony Doerr is not going to come naturally to you. And, in both cases, that’s good. You don’t want to sound like another author, you want to sound like you.
3. Describe who you are in 3-5 words, and/or have a friend describe you
Take some time to ponder the results of this. If the words you chose were “father/dependable/joyful,” your voice will be different than if they were “activist/impulsive/bibliophile,” or “spiritual/fashionista/leader.” Would someone who has read your books agree with the descriptive words you chose? Or would they say, “Huh, you’ve got kids? I never would’ve guessed that” or “You’re Buddhist—no way!”
If that’s the case, you’re probably hiding your real voice behind one you’ve assumed, perhaps thinking it’s more saleable or “literary.” Don’t judge the words you chose or yourself. Embrace them and let that authentic self show through in your writing
4. Identify your themes and tone
If you’ve written more than one manuscript, comb through your books and short stories (published and un-) to find your themes. Most authors return to familiar themes, or familiar character types or situations. In my books, for example (getting on for 30 if you count the unpubbed ones), I often deal with themes related to building a family from people you’re not necessarily related to, redemption, and difficult relationships with parents or the effects of losing a parent. A writing friend pointed out I almost always have a priest/rector/minister in my books, and those characters are often morally reprehensible, have a dark past, or the like, so another of my themes is probably “religion gone bad.” (Ask a critique partner what your themes are, if you’re not sure.)
Although some of my themes might seem dark or difficult, my tone is always hopeful and optimistic (by the book’s end, at least). Is your tone upbeat? Grim? Lighthearted? Cynical? Ironic? Detached? Give this some serious thought and consider how your tone marries with your themes.
The combination of themes and tone spring from your subconscious, your worldview, and are a large component of your voice.
Identifying them can help you see where you might be losing your voice in the middle of a manuscript, or help you understand why your cozy mysteries don’t sell as well as your noir thrillers. Even if you’re deliberately changing your voice and writing style for different genres, your true voice will probably peep through, and it’s probably not suited for all topics and genres.
5. Examine what you like to read
Look at the books you really enjoy reading. (Not those you read because you think you should, or because they’re the best seller du jour, or because you want to drop casual references to Proust during cocktail conversations.) What books are you eager to get back to, do you finish in a single sitting, do you wholeheartedly recommend to friends, or reread time and again? Chances are, those books align with your worldview and tell stories in a way that appeals to you. Your voice is probably not too far off those authors’ voices, so analyzing those authors’ voices might help you zero in on yours.
Look at the elements we talked about in #1, above. Try writing a paragraph or two like your fave author. Does it feel comfortable? I’m not suggesting you imitate another writer, but you can adapt elements from their style (sentence length, richness of descriptive detail, use of interior monologues, etc.) that fit with your voice.
Visual artists frequently try to copy the brush strokes and composition of the masters while evolving their own unique style. Authors—you, me—can do that, too.
There’s clearly much more to talk about related to voice, including how it might change a bit if you switch genres, whether it’s good to aim for a neutral voice that will be almost inaudible to readers or a highly distinctive voice, the relationship between your voice and your character’s voice, and more, but I hope this is enough to get you started.
Let’s chat on FB if you’ve got more questions.