Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Writer's Voice

Editors and agents often say they're interested in a writer’s voice, and that they’ll know an interesting and distinctive voice when they read it. Having a unique voice can lift your work out of the slush pile and into the rarified stratosphere of bestseller-dom.

So, what is voice, and more specially, how do I find it?

Maybe the place to start is by figuring out what voice isn’t. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner says that voice shouldn’t be confused with style or technique or branding. It has nothing to do with whether you write in first person or third person. It’s not a technical question of writing, but more of emotional one.

Gardner says: “…your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It’s that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write. Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.”

The trouble with most writers, and most people, Gardner believes, is that we spend our lives wearing a mask, showing the world a face that is not our own. When it comes time to write with a truly honest, authentic voice, we find it difficult to find that voice inside us. She also believes that because we’ve been bombarded since infancy by all sorts of media, including books, movies, and television, it’s very easy for our writing to sound like something that has come before. Gardner says that finding your voice is “… a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you’re-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self. It’s like going to psychotherapy, delving deep and allowing the real you to emerge, only in this case you want it to find its way on to the page.”

There are no new stories; only unique ways of telling these old stories. And to do that we need to find our voices.

How do you find your own writing voice?

You begin by discovering what you like to write and to read. Anne Lower says she discovered her voice by acknowledging her strengths and interests. By being honest with herself, she came to know exactly what she wanted to write and in the process found her authentic writing voice. Writers life coach Erin Reel recommends reading the competition both new and old. Find out which voices resonate with you.

Daily writing tips says voice is all about choice: “Voice is all about the choices you make: the topic, the story structure, the phrasing, the vocabulary, the details. But there’s more to it than that; there’s also the passion for the subject matter, and the fortitude of opinion.”  In other words, the more passionate you are for the subject matter the more your voice will shine through.

You can also find your voice by continuing to write. Anne Lower exhorts us to “Write, write and write some more.” Frequent writing allows us to become more comfortable with our thoughts and gives us the courage to express what we really want to say in the way we want to say it. Erin Reel tells us to concentrate on the story we want to tell. Write as many drafts as it takes to get to that authentic voice. Don’t worry about editors and agents and contracts while you’re writing; just concentrate on the story. Don’t think about the business side of writing until the story is done and you have something to share with the world.

Steven Pressfield believes that each type of work requires its own voice, and that the writer’s job is to allow that unique voice to serve the work: “To me the trick is getting your own ego out of the way. What voice does the material want? Find that. You the writer are not there to impose “your” voice on the material. Your job is to surrender to the material–and allow it to tell you what voice it wants in order to tell itself.”

The keys to finding your authentic writing voice are courage, time, stamina and persistence. Refuse to settle for anything but what is authentic and unique about your writing.

Have you discovered your authentic writer’s voice or are you presently on a journey of discovery to find it?


  1. I think I've made a good start on finding mine. I know when what I'm writing sounds like me, if that makes any sense. I think that's why I love editing because that's when I really start to 'feel' it!

    Great post, Jana!

  2. "I know when what I'm writing sounds like me, if that makes any sense."

    I know exactly what you mean, Karyn. When the authentic 'me' comes out in the writing, I can feel it. And the writing feels almost effortless, even the revisions.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I think my current editor hates my voice. The acquisitions editor liked it (I think), but this one is seriously offended by about 90% of the things my character thinks, feels and says. However, I'm not changing the voice, so I guess she'll just have to suffer through the edits!

  4. Oh Joanne, that's disappointing! The only advice I can give you is to think carefully about any changes you are asked to do. Sometimes after further reflection they make sense. But if you think about it carefully and are afraid that the changes will take the heart right out of the book, maybe you should have a little discussion with the editor and find out what she's trying to do. Maybe everything will make more sense then.

    Best of luck.