Jul 072009
 
what is voice in writing

How do you free your voice in your writing? (image by howardlake, via flickr)

Ask five writers what voice is in writing, you’ll get 15 different answers. Ultimately, a writer’s voice is the key to writing a good story.

These tips will help free your writer’s voice – they apply to fiction and nonfiction, poetry and blogging.

Lately I’ve been obsessed with voice because I think that’s why my agent hasn’t landed me a book contract yet. My ideas are great, but my voice needs work (ouch). Here’s what I’ve learned about writing style and voice — but first, a quip!

“Confident writers have the courage to speak plainly; to let their thoughts shine rather than their vocabulary.” ~ Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear (one of my favorite books about writing).

Help for Writers and Bloggers

In 75 Tips for Making Money Blogging, I share how I've been making money blogging since 2008.

Do you want to be a writer - but you can't quite seem to "get there"?
73 Tips for Firing Up (or Just Firing!) the Muse.

Don’t write to impress, fellow scribes. Write to connect with your readers. Your writer’s voice builds a better bridge to your readers. It’s your fingerprint, it’s your individual writing style, and it gives your writing soul. To learn more about freeing your voice, read Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing.

And, use these creative writing tips to become a stronger, more courageous, more successful writer….

5 Tips on Finding Your Writer’s Voice

“Style is an expression of self, and [writers] should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerisms, tricks, and adornments,” write Strunk and White in The Elements of Style.

The only “trick” to developing your writ’ers voice and style is to relax and let it flow…

Follow your literary hunches

In an article about menopause for alive magazine, I used the phrases “the crimson tide” and “Aunt Flo” instead of “your period.” I hesitated at first (would readers get it? is it too casual for a health magazine?), but decided to let it rip – and the editor emailed to say she loved those specific phrases! Taking risks when you write will help you find your writer’s voice and trust your hunches.

Learn the difference between good writing and voice

Developing your writer’s voice doesn’t mean you can wax eloquent for hours, ignore punctuation, or forget about editing. Learn and practice the rules of good writing, and you’ll free your voice. “As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge,” write Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, “because you yourself will emerge…” The more comfortable you are with the rules for good writing, the more your writer’s voice will shine.

Stop comparing yourself to other writers and their voices

You have natural strengths and weaknesses — and so do other writers. Comparing how you write or your writer’s voice to other writers – whether Anne Lamott or the blogger next door – is destructive and suffocating. So, admire other writers’ styles. Nurture your own. Focus on ways to improve your confidence as a writer.

Make envy work for you

If you wrestle with the green-eyed monster from time to time, learn how to harness that energy. Jealousy can work in your favor by showing you what you really want and where you really want your writing career to go. For instance, if you envy a bestselling novelist, then maybe fiction writing is your thing. If you read literary essays in the New Yorker and wish you’d written them, then take a creative writing class and polish up your literary techniques. If you envy freelance writers who make money writing, then maybe it’s time to invest in the latest copy of Writer’s Market!

Speaking of envy, read The #1 Reason You Haven’t Written the Book You Want to Write.

Picture one specific reader and write to him or her

When a publisher asked me to rewrite a few sample chapters of See Jane Soar, she specifically asked me to make my writing more edgy and quirky. I tried, but it didn’t fly. I was too focused on trying to impress the publisher and get my book published! I hadn’t learned the creative writing tip of picturing one specific reader — one that I’m not trying to impress – and just communicating with her. That publisher rejected my manuscript, and I learned the importance of finding my writer’s voice.

Your writer’s voice can’t be learned. It has to be freed.

For more insight, read Expressive Writing – 5 Ways to Write With Emotion and Hook Readers.

What say you, fellow scribes, about your writer’s voice? I welcome your thoughts below!

  28 Responses to “What is Writer’s Voice? The Key to Writing a Good Story”

  1. Hi Laurie! You have a great blog. Congratulations on becoming a social worker. I’m curious…has your writing changed much over the years?

    Cheers, Lesley

  2. I say get on with the writing and let Voice take care of itself. Anything written will have a Voice. Good writing probably means good Voice too. One could also insert Style in place of Voice and it amounts to the same thing.

  3. Dear Vanessa,

    Thank you so much for your kind comments! Another thing about writer’s voice: it can be endearing and charming, and make your readers feel like they know you. If they feel connected to you, they’ll keep reading you…and they’ll tell other people about you.

    I think that’s why writers like Anne Lamott are so successful and popular. They’re fantastic writers, but they also have a compelling voice that makes you feel like you’re reading their innermost thoughts.

  4. Dear Laurie,

    Great tips – thank you so much! I’ve also just read your brief bio and I’m inspired by your positive approach to life (and all its challenges) and you seem to really have a heart to help others…which is truly beautiful. As a (wo)man thinketh, so is (s)he. (Proverbs 23:7)

    Blessings,
    Vanessa

  5. Hi Laurie,

    As I was putting some references on my website, as well as links on the subject of Writer’s Voice, I came across this site and so I took the freedom to add it on the reference section. I’ve also been working on the subject of Voice (as one of the core elements of writing) and thought that perhaps you might be interested in checking out what I wrote, and letting me know if you don’t mind me having put a link to this blog for those wishing to explore the matter further.

  6. Thanks, Laurie! This post was so helpful all around – the quips, the tips, the book referrals and your warm encouragement. :) Will practice immediately!

    All the best and tashi delay (“I recognize the greatness in you” in Tibetan),

    Pauline
    Freelance writer

  7. I know this may sound crazy, but I think some writers are afraid to find or even use their voice for fear of backlash from family and friends. On the other hand, some get burned out from writing in one particular voice. For example, I’m the type of writer who doesn’t want to be ‘boxed in’ to one type of voice. Where’s the fun in that? It’s one of the reasons I stopped guest blogging. I got tired of my ‘voice’ and am looking for new opportunities where I can be witty, humorous, snarky, and satirical. Change is good.

  8. Since writing this article, I learned that freeing your writer’s voice takes time. My personality shines through MUCH more clearly now than it did even three months ago, because I keep practicing and telling myself that I want to set my writer’s voice free. Else, my writing is boring.

  9. Great discussion here, sorry I arrived so late! this is very good. :)

  10. I think it’s common (expected?) to lose your natural writer’s voice in an effort to please readers, editors, publishers, agents, etc. Hopefully, we’re able to come back to our voice after we realize that the only reader we need to please is ourselves! If we enjoy our writing, our readers will too…
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..How to Make Conversation for Introverts – Tips for Small Talk =-.

  11. I recently wrote a post about voice myself:

    The Voice to Tell Your Story

    I’ve been feeling like, in my efforts to appeal to readers and be perfect in my presentation, I’ve lost my natural voice. I’m working to find it again, though, and enjoying the process immensely.
    .-= Ami´s last blog post ..{Creativity Corner} Fearless =-.

  12. The cool thing about finding your writer’s voice and then being confident about it, is that we all like different types of writing and styles! So, even if Joe Blow doesn’t like my writer’s voice, I know that Suzie Q will…and I like my own writer’s voice…

    We all have different preferences when it comes to reading and writing, which should free us to let our own writer’s voices come through loud and clear. That’s what I was trying to say! phew
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..Fear of Success for Writers – Signs of Self-Sabotage in the Writing Life =-.

  13. Writer’s Voice. Hmm … I think of it no differently from that of a singer or actor or artist. It has an inflection, a personality, a predictability, a style and a tone. Actually, many of the qualities already identified in the other comments. It all adds up to something I can grab onto that I can either love, hate or forget. For me personally it is what will sink my writing or sail it. In either case, I can’t do without it. It’s a live by the pen/die by the pen sort of sword affair.

  14. Thanks, K.M. — it’s great to hear from a writer who is confident with her (his?) writing voice! So many of us tend to make it complicated, as you mentioned.

    Great to have your voice here :-)
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..A Freelance Writer’s Spreadsheet for Invoices and Payments =-.

  15. So often, writers want to make “voice” into some deeply mysterious, when really it isn’t. Voice is just the way we write and the way it sounds as it falls on the reader’s inner ear. I love experimenting with voice, spinning words in new and unusual ways. But it’s always *my* voice, because it is always my writing.
    .-= K.M. Weiland´s last blog post ..Guest Post on Milliver’s Travels =-.

  16. Thanks for your comment, Doug — you’ve given me something to chew on in every paragraph!

    I’d love to see an example of how writers like Stephen King can change their voices within a work. Do you recall a book or short story in which he did that?

    I understand changing character voices within a work (eg, showing perspectives from a grade 8 character versus a university professor) — but does the actual writer’s voice change? I guess we’d have to see the actual book to pinpoint the changes.

    King might play around with his writer’s voice (you ask why would he, because he has his audience) simply for something to do….to challenge himself, maybe. I wonder if he ever gets bored with what he writes? I found it fascinating that he struggled to write On Writing, his nonfiction memoir-slash-writing book. He was out of his comfort zone there! Good place for a writer to be — and in that case, it was great for other writers.

    Laurie
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..Getting What You Want Out of Life – Angelina Jolie =-.

  17. I’ve been writing fiction with mild to moderate effort for about twenty five years. I know Laurie is a non-fiction writer and perhaps most of the visitors to this site are too, but I believe the process of developing a confident voice is the same for both fiction and non-fiction writing even though there are differences in craft. This is a topic I’ve thought often about over the years so I thought I’d throw in my two cents.
    1. Literary hunches – absolutely follow them, that’s the whole point of writing – it’s always hard to judge genius from junk, but you refine the ability with experience and without junk there can’t be genius. That’s why there are editors (and critics, I suppose). Truman Capote said ‘it takes a lot of bad writing to get to a little good writing.’
    2. Good writing vs. voice – in order to have the tools to write you have to understand the rules. I don’t think you need to be a grammatical expert but ,unless you’re a poet, you have to be reasonably proficient at writing in an accessible (simple) style that usually follows the rules. I believe voice develops more quickly after you’ve spent the time to gain proficiency.
    3. Comparison with other writers – it depends how far along you are. When I was younger and encountered a writer I admired, it intimidated me and it was a negative. Now I look at them and try to figure out how to take something from them, to learn how they’ve done what I like, and try to make some part of it my own – I’m speaking less of voice than technique, I think, as while I can admire a voice or style, I think it’s impractical to really copy one, and foolish to try. I think my change in attitude toward other writers is a function of confidence, which I know I’ve developed (at a painfully slow rate, but I have).
    4. Jealousy – whatever makes you spend time writing is a good thing but I’d rather have it be something warmer.
    5. Picture one reader – I’ve never considered a specific technique in this regard, but I know that I have a strong awareness of the reader. This is something I’ve developed over time.
    Voice is obviously tied to personality as writing is such a personal, solitary act -everything about it is tied to personality. But certainly a good writer can a have many voices (hopefully without many personalities). If I’m writing a love story on one hand and a hard boiled mystery on the other, I’ll certainly have a difference in my voice simply because of the difference in the narratives. Also within characters – a professor of philosophy will be given a different voice than a grade eight dropout both in dialogue and interior stream (if it’s a third person narrative, the narration can be the same – but doesn’t have to be). It’s rather like acting, I guess – you slip on the character and try to be him. I believe writers such as King change their voices within a work. As he’s a genre writer it’s subtle with him, but it’s there if you look for it. I think he’s skillful enough to show greater change if he chose to, but he has his audience so why would he? Joyce in Ulysses had great changes in voice and provides an extreme example of what a master can do.
    Yikes. Now I am intimidated. Better go write.

  18. Hi Laurie,

    Great discussion here, sorry I arrived so late!

    Voice is so critical to good writing, but defining it is akin to answering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    I think where writers get into trouble is when they like a particular author’s style and try to emulate that voice. It doesn’t work.

    One of my favorite posts I wrote is on finding your voice. For myself, I write what I hear in my head (Except those voices my shrink told me to ignore ;-) ) I don’t think about my voice, I just try to write as I would speak. That’s why I’ll sometimes write a sentence fragment. Or use an apostrophe instead of the proper word ending. And start a sentence with “and” because it sounds right in me head. You get the picture…

    George
    .-= Tumblemoose´s last blog post ..Writing basics for the first time novelist, part one =-.

  19. I’ve slept on it, and I think a writer’s voice is their writing personality. Their writing personality can be similar to their in-person personality — or it can be different!

    I like thinking of a writer’s voice this way.

    Thanks for chiming in, Alexis, Ami, and Sherry!

    Alexis, after you write your own post about a writer’s voice, I hope you come back to this thread and post it for us. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    I agree, Ami — developing confidence will definitely help you find and free your voice. And how do you develop confidence? By taking writing risks!

    And Sherri…I’m not surprised that readers recognize your voice, but you don’t see or hear it. I think it’s similar to personality in that way. We can be too close to ourselves to see the distinct aspects of our own personalities.

    I know that part of my writer’s voice is the use of “…” (an ellipse) and “–” (a dash). I use them liberally — probably too much. But my strong writer’s voice can’t be quelled!

    Happy writing,
    Laurie
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..5 Tips for Developing Your Writer’s Voice =-.

  20. I’m not really sure that “voice” is, but I’ve been told I have it.

  21. I love talking about voice because I think it’s what makes great writers…well, great. As Alexis said, it’s not an easy topic to tackle, but you offered some fantastic suggestions for letting our own voices loose.

    I agree with other commenters, as well: finding your written voice is like developing your personality. It takes time and requires developing confidence in who you are (as a writer or as a person).
    .-= Ami´s last blog post ..Interview: Novelist Kathryn Magendie =-.

  22. Thanks for this! I think a lot of bloggers skip over this topic because it’s just so hard to explain and teach. You offered some interesting ideas here!
    .-= Alexis Grant´s last blog post ..#memoirchat = Discussing memoir on Twitter =-.

  23. This is great – having a dialogue with the blogger and another reader/writer on-line. I’ve been pondering this for the past couple of hours and am starting to see style in terms of diction, relaxed vs formal etc. whereas voice is the personality – sarcastic, playful, serious, opinionated etc. It’s that subtle personality that comes out between the characaters dialogue etc.

    Re wondering if I wrote what I wrote – yes I do love my writing when I look back to an article I wrote a year or so ago – and it may not be the writing so much as the content – I often think “Gee I sound so wise!”
    .-= Gini Grey´s last blog post ..Boundaries =-.

  24. Guy, I skipped over you — sorry! Yes, I think you’re recognizing Peters’ voice in both types of her stories.

    Can you escape your own voice — and still write well?

    Could Stephen King write differently? Would he want to?

    No wonder there are whole books written on the topic of a writer’s voice :-)
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..Getting What You Want Out of Life – Angelina Jolie =-.

  25. I’ve been avoiding this blog because I’m waffling on what I think about personality and writer’s voice. Guy’s right: this is a very interesting question, Gini!

    By the way, what do you mean when you read your writing and think “did I really write that”? Do mean it’s so fascinating, you can’t tear your eyes away? ;-) (I’m kidding — but DO feel free to say you like or even love your own writing! I think that’s great).

    Can writers recognize their own voice? Maybe it’s hard to see, like aspects of your own personality.

    On one hand, I think personality can be separate from your writer’s voice. I think writing can allow some writers to escape their personalities or their lives. Writing can be an outlet, a way for writers to express who they AREN’T.

    But now that I’ve written that, I realize that I may be talking about two different things. Your topic/plot/theme/characters can be your escape, but your voice could be who…you…are. Which means it’s your personality.

    Hey, I know! Let’s define what a writer’s voice is.

    Wikipedia definition:

    “Writer’s voice is a literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice is a combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can also be referred to as the specific fingerprint of an author, as every author has a different writing style.

    In creative writing, students are often encouraged to experiment with different literary styles and techniques in order to help them better develop their “voice.” Voice varies with the individual author, but, particularly in American culture, having a strong voice is considered positive and beneficial to both the writer and his or her audience.”

    Interesting, but not helpful.

    After all this, I think that yes, Gini, you’re right. Finding your writer’s voice is like expressing your personality in real life.

    I don’t know why I have such a hard time accepting this. There’s something I can’t put my finger on…

    Laurie
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..Getting What You Want Out of Life – Angelina Jolie =-.

  26. @Gini: That’s an interesting question. Does voice = personality? Elizabeth Peters writes the excellent Amelia Peabody stories, and also writes Vicky Bliss stories. Each protagonist has their own personality, and yet EP writes both with the same wit, over-the-top dramatics, and optimism. Is that her voice?
    .-= Guy´s last blog post ..Progress Report =-.

  27. Thank you for writing about this important topic Laurie – I look forward to discussing it at our writers meeting on Wed. I find it difficult when reading my own writing to know if I have a voice – I like my own work, but often think, “did I really write that?”.

    Would you say that a writers voice is similar to a persons personality? So being yourself when interacting with others would be akin to writing from your own voice?
    .-= Gini Grey´s last blog post ..Boundaries =-.

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