Put simply, a writing voice is what makes Hemingway sound like Hemingway and Stephen King like Stephen King. Everyone in the business of novel writing has one, including you.
Don’t underestimate the importance of finding a strong voice. How you tell your story is just as crucial as what you say, if not more so.
Don’t believe me? Then listen to Stephen King (who knows a thing or two about engaging his fans)…
People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.
Les Edgerton, author of the excellent Finding Your Voice, agrees…
Contrary to what many think, I don’t believe readers are attracted nearly so much to plots and characters as much as they are to the personality of the person regaling them on the page.
Voice matters, then – it matters a lot. Trouble is, it’s difficult to define.
The best advice I can give is this: You’ll know you’ve discovered your writing voice when you find it.
But although that’s true, it’s not exactly helpful. So let’s at least try to define the indefinable…
What Is Your Writing Voice?
When you write something – anything – you make a series of choices…
- Should you use this word or that?
- Is this metaphor effective or should you find a better one?
- Should you split that long sentence in two or keep it as it is?
Again, I’m not talking here about what you say – the events, the characters and so on – but how you say it. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word involves choices like the ones above.
Your writing voice is the accumulation of all those choices.
Think of it This Way…
If we both watched a short scene from a movie and were then asked to turn that scene into a chapter in a novel, you and I would write that scene entirely differently. The events (what happens, what is said, etc.) would be the same. But how each of us says it would be very different.
Why? Because we’re different people with different personalities and, yes, different voices.
Would one of those written chapters be “better” than the other? Not if we both did a perfect job of getting our natural voices onto the page. But…
- If one of us had resorted to polite-sounding, technically-correct prose – the kind of thing you’d write in a job application rather than a chapter in a novel – then that person’s chapter would be worse than the other’s.
- Same thing if one of us had tried to sound “writerly” – that is, tried to show off with elaborate sentence constructions and fancy-sounding words.
Those bullet points are important, so let’s look at them one by one…
Danger #1: “Polite” Prose
I’m talking about the kind of writing your English teacher at school would have approved of. Don’t get me wrong…
All that grammar and stuff you had drilled into you from a young age was good (mostly). Without learning correct English usage, you would have struggled to do essential things like apply for a job, or (assuming you got the job) correspond with colleagues and clients effectively.
The thing is, there’s a world of difference between “correct” writing and creative writing.
A lot of what you learned in school applies equally to creative writing. If you spell “thats” without an apostrophe, for example, it’s wrong – whether you use it in a novel or a business letter. Same thing goes for writing “don’t” when you mean “doesn’t.”
Getting the basics right is important, then. But beyond that, it’s equally important to loosen up a bit. Miss Sowerbutt (or whatever your English teacher was called) isn’t there to mark your work anymore. And that gives you the freedom to ignore some of what she taught you and write more like you speak.
For example, Miss Sowerbutt would not have approved of this…
Fred hated fireworks. His dog too.
That second sentence isn’t a sentence at all (one with a subject, a verb and an object). It’s a sentence fragment. Miss Sowerbutt would have taken out her red pen and changed it to this…
Fred hated fireworks. His dog hated them too.
And she would have been right – in day-to-day writing, you probably should avoid sentence fragments. For novel writing, though, sentence fragments add personality to the page.
Here’s Les Edgerton again from Finding Your Voice (I highly recommend it if you want to dig much deeper into this topic). He calls the “polite prose” I’ve been talking about your “beige voice”…
It’s not your fault if you write with a beige voice. Not at all. If you do, it’s most likely because you were a good, obedient student and paid attention and tried to do the right thing. How’s an eighth-grader supposed to know what he or she is being given may not be the best advice?
Danger #2: Trying to Sound “Writerly”
This is probably the biggest mistake that newcomers to novel writing make. Here’s how novelist Dennis Foley describes the problem…
New fiction writers somehow think that they need to write at a different level of sophistication. Couldn’t be further from the truth. The goal should be to communicate with the reader the same way they would when telling a story to a good friend. It is a hard habit to break, a hangover from school days, but a writer’s personality and style – his voice – will only come through in his writing when he relaxes and focuses on the needs of the reader.
If you suffer from this complaint, typical symptoms include…
- Substituting simple words for fancier words – quite possibly words you needed a thesaurus to discover (and then a dictionary to check what they meant!)
- Writing elaborate sentences, full of clauses, and sub-clauses, instead of simple, workmanlike, unshowy sentences.
Am I saying that “good” writing is simple writing? Not necessarily, no. If everyone wrote stripped-down prose like Hemingway or Raymond Carver, the world of fiction would be a much duller place.
What I am saying is that deliberately making your writing sound “writerly,” because that’s how you think writers are supposed to write, is wrong. The writer Laurie Lee had it right…
No writing which is self-consciously literature means much to me or means much to the reader – I think he dozes off. But if it sounds right, if it’s like a voice in your ear, if it has all the rhythms and surprises of the spoken voice, you are suddenly listening to a living experience – then you know you’re getting somewhere.
And so did Samuel Johnson (the dictionary guy)…
Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Okay. We’ve covered the two dangers to avoid. But what should you do when you sit down to write? I can sum it up in a single sentence…
Use Your NATURAL Writing Voice
The closest thing you’ve got to your “natural” voice is the one you use to speak to a close friend (or anybody you feel 100% comfortable to be with).
When you’re with that friend, you wouldn’t choose a long word over a short word to impress them with your extensive vocabulary. You’d only choose the longer word if it was the only one that expressed what you wanted to say.
And you wouldn’t worry about following all the rules of grammar or sentence construction. Of course, you wouldn’t talk like you were uneducated, either (because you’re not). But you’d use plenty of sentence fragments and split infinitives (and all those other things Miss Sowerbutt warned you about).
What would you do? Say whatever it is you have to say as clearly as simply as possible. Period.
A Couple of Caveats
Before you rush off and start writing exactly like you speak, you need to understand that there are slight differences between your natural speaking voice and your natural writing voice.
For starters, we all have verbal tics when we’re speaking…
- Maybe you say “eh?” after a lot of sentences. (“This is a great steak, eh?”)
- Maybe you use the word “like” too much. (Although you may not, like, recognize that you do it.)
- Or maybe you curse like a sailor when you hang out with your best friend.
All of these things are fine when you’re chewing over the day with a friend. But in writing? Such tics would get real annoying, real fast. So drop ’em!
Don’t Forget Your Audience
Another thing that’s different about your natural writing voice is the audience…
When you talk to a friend, the friend is the audience. When you write a novel, the audience is made up of readers who have paid good money to hear you tell a gripping story. So here’s the thing…
- On one level, these readers want you to write like you’re talking to a friend. That’s what makes the words engaging.
- On another level, they expect you to bring the story to life, just like they’re experiencing the events themselves. And to do that, you need to employ certain techniques that you just wouldn’t use in an everyday conversation. Like sensual description and figurative language, for example.
Bottom line? Your natural speaking voice is a great starting point for your natural writing voice. But you need to refine it by…
- Eliminating those verbal tics we all use.
- Not being afraid to release your inner poet – when writing descriptions, for example.
Beyond that, you need to understand that your natural speaking voice probably isn’t as smooth as you think it is. (Record yourself telling a story to a friend then transcribe it – the words will likely sound pretty clunky!)
So although what you’re aiming for is the “effortlessness” of natural speech, the reality is that it will take several revisions to make your writing voice sound as natural as your believe your speaking voice to be.
The literary agent James C. Vines put it like this…
An author’s natural voice might not necessarily be the one that just comes rushing out easily when she sits at her keyboard. Cynthia Ozick told me she once spent an entire week on a single sentence, rearranging it and tinkering with it until it was just right. That’s what it can take to get to your natural voice.
All Writers Are Different
I said above that the best voice to use in writing is “your natural voice.” We’ve already covered what I meant by the word “natural.” The other important word is “your.”
Your natural voice is different to mine. You may naturally use longer words (or shorter ones). Or you may prefer longer, more elaborate sentences to shorter and sharper ones (or vice versa). You may do 1,000 things differently.
And that’s all good. It’s what makes you you and me me. It’s what draws our respective audiences to our books… and what makes them look forward to our next books.
Why do I say all that?
Because I don’t want you to think that a “natural” voice is the same thing as an “easy-going” or a “colloquial” voice.
For many folks it is. But if your natural speaking voice is more…
… then that is the voice you want to cultivate in your writing. You’ll be drawn towards genres that call for this type of voice (as opposed to romantic comedy, say). And you’ll therefore attract readers who like hearing from a voice like yours.
Or your natural speaking voice may be…
- more conversational
- more light-hearted.
Again, your voice is a reflection of who you are. Which in turn will reflect your choice of reading. Which will reflect the kind of books you want to write yourself. And which will reflect the kind of readers you attract.
Whatever your natural voice is like, the key is simple: make sure that the natural writing voice you cultivate through practice is a genuine reflection of the way you speak.
How can you be sure that it is? Work on a passage of fiction until it’s as good as you can make it, then read it aloud to someone else (or just to yourself if you hate reading aloud to others).
If it sounds like you, you’ll sail through the reading. If you stumble over sentences or trip over individual words, they’re probably not written in your natural voice.
Writing Voice vs. Character Voice
This is where it gets complicated (but only a little)…
There’s a world of difference between the voice you would use for non-fiction and fiction.
- When you write non-fiction, you’re free to be yourself. The more personality you get onto the page, whether you’re writing an autobiography, a history book or a cookbook, the better.
- When you write fiction, readers aren’t interested in you (as we discussed in the section on point of view). They’re interested in the fictional world you’ve created and the characters who inhabit it.
Fortunately, as far as voice is concerned, your characters are all “you.” That moody cop you created? He’s a part of who you are. As are the kindly old lady, the lovesick teenager and the angry cab driver.
All of these people are facets of your own personality. So when you write a scene in which one of them is the viewpoint character, you first need to connect with that part of yourself that’s the the moody cop, the kindly old lady, the lovesick teenager or the angry can driver.
Once you’ve slipped into their skin, as it were, you write the scene using your regular “natural writing voice.” But because you’re inhabiting a fictional character as you do so, just like a movie actor inhabits a character, your natural voice will automatically adjust in subtle ways to the character you’re currently playing.
The words you choose will still be natural to your own way of speaking. But they’ll be the words you would have chosen when you’re in “moody” mode or “lovesick” mode.
Here’s another way of looking at it. My natural speaking voice will never be precisely the same from one day to the next…
- Speak to me today, when I’m feeling happy and carefree, and I’ll talk one way.
- Speak to me tomorrow, when who-knows-what may have happened overnight, and I’ll talk to you in a different way.
Both voices will essentially sound like “me.” I’ll have the same vocabulary at my disposal, the same way of constructing sentences, the same rhythm to my words. But my tone will be a little different from one day to the next.
And so it is with my writing voice…
- My tone will sound one way today, when I’m writing a fight scene from the viewpoint of my internal “moody cop.”
- Tomorrow, when I’m channeling my inner “lovesick teenager,” my tone will be different.
What about those in-between parts – those parts of the story, usually at the start of a chapter, where I’m just narrating the events and not standing in the shoes of the viewpoint character?
Then I’ll use my “neutral narrator’s voice.”
I’ll use the words that I would naturally use in my own speech. I’ll construct sentences as I would construct them when talking, and aim for a rhythm that sounds like the rhythms of my speech. But I’ll keep my personality out of it (because readers aren’t interested in me, only in my characters).
Bottom line? Work hard at cultivating your natural writing voice (which is very similar to your natural speaking voice, minus the rough edges).
But don’t forget to filter that voice through the viewpoint character of the scene you’re writing.
And remember this: all of your characters are facets of yourself.
Okay, that’s the tough part dealt with – “tough” because voice is very difficult to define. Here’s what it boils down to…
You need to be yourself (the person you are when you’re completely at ease talking to someone you care about). But sounding like yourself in writing (rather than in speech) takes a lot of tinkering with the words to make them sound effortless.
Stick with it. Practice as much as you can. And like I said at the top, you’ll know you’ve discovered your writing voice when you find it!
I’ll give the final word to William Zinsser (from On Writing Well)…
My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you.
Write that on an index card. It will come in handy the next time you tell yourself that you “need to write like [fill in the name of your favorite author].”
Further Reading: Once you’ve found your writing voice, you can improve it further by following a few simple rules of style. Check them out in Prose Writing 101.
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