Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What is Writer’s Voice?

by Joe Moore

If I asked a musician to play a melody on a trumpet, then asked another to play the same melody on a cello, chances are you could tell the difference between the two even though they played the same notes. Not only does musicone instrument sound different from the other, but individually, they can convey a variety of emotions based upon the style and technique of the musicians. Both can play the same melody, and when combined with the timbre of the instruments and their respective artists’ style, they can also invoke feelings and emotion.

In a similar manner, when it comes to defining the writer’s voice, it can be the combination of the author’s attitude, personality and character; the writer’s style that conveys the story. It’s called the writer’s voice. Voice is the persona of the story as interpreted by the reader.

So how do you find your writer’s voice and keep it going throughout your manuscript? Here are some tips.

First, start by writing to connect with your readers, not to impress them. Your voice is the direct connection into your reader’s head. Some might argue that the words are the connection. But I believe that the words are like the notes on the sheet music that a musician reads as he or she plays that trumpet or cello. Those notes printed on the musical staff have no value until they are “voiced” by the musician.

Likewise, those written words on the printed page of a book have no value until they are interpreted by the reader. With the musical example, the styles and techniques of the musicians are the connection to the listener. With the novel, the writer’s voice is the connection into the reader’s imagination. The pictures formed in the mind of the reader are strongest when the writer’s voice is solid, unique and original.

The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to simply let the words flow without restrictions—let them speak from your heart. Feel the emotions that your character or (first-person) narrator feels.

Equally important, avoid comparing yourself to other writers. Doing so can be restrictive or downright destructive to your voice. You are who you are, not someone else. Write from your heart while not trying to copy your favorite author. The writer’s voice you need to create is yours alone. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other writers, but convert that inspiration into your own style, your own voice.

It’s also dangerous to compare yourself to other writers or become jealous of their style or accomplishments. Doing so always leads to frustration and a product that is not totally yours. If you’ve tried to inject someone else’s voice into your words, the lack of honesty will always come through to the reader.

Finally, as you work on your manuscript, try to visualize a specific reader and write directly to that person. Remember that you’re trying to communicate, to make a single connection with a single reader.

Just like a musician playing the notes on the sheet music, finding your writer’s voice is the process of communicating with your reader the emotions and feelings you feel through your characters. You can’t learn voice, but through writing, more writing and even more writing, you can develop a distinctive, unique writer’s voice.


  1. I LOVE this post, Joe. The idea of writing to connect rather than impress & engaging the reader's imagination is spot on. Feeling what your character is feeling & seeing the story unfold through their eyes--in a "free association" way without overthinking it--is a great way to describe voice. Perfect.

  2. Great words, as always, Joe.

    Learning not to over-think it all, and letting your imagination run onto the page is sheer magic.

  3. Good tips, Joe. Just write to tell your story in the best possible way and "voice," an elusive fish of a concept, will tend to take care of itself. Especially if, as you suggest, you put your heart into it.

    One thing Ray Bradbury did was read poetry every day. He wanted to expand his language choices and sounds, and that is certainly reflected in his prose.

    So voice can't really be taught, but a writer can do things to help coax it out.

  4. I like the music analogy. That makes the elusive explanation of voice easier to understand.

    Growing up, I always wanted to write just like Zane Grey. When I finally tackled writing as an adult, I learned very quickly I couldn't write his or anybody else's way, I was going to have to learn my own way. I still haven't nailed it, but I'm working on it.

    The most fun moments in writing are where you just let go and create.

  5. This is one of the best posts on voice I've seen! There's a lot of advice saying you need to have a distinctive voice, but not much on how to actually do that, so thanks.

    I love the idea of trying to connect to the readers rather than impress them.

    I found that blogging helped me with voice, because I started writing without feeling the "THIS IS A BOOK YOU MUST BE PERFECT" pressure.

    Voice is also easier for me when I have a strong feel for the character.

  6. I don't know that I totally agree with you, Joe. I think borrowing another writer's voice can be very effective. As evidence, I would offer Simon Green's Nightside series. The series is done (or overdone, to inject humor) in detective noir style. Is that his voice? I don't think so, because he writes another series where he sounds like Ian Fleming. Is he a master writer with tremendous contol of his work? Absolutely!

    In general, writers benefit from developing their own distinctive voice, but perhaps saying NEVER borrow from other writers is a step too far. Learning to manipulate voice seems to me to be another step on the road to mastering the craft.


  7. These are good tips, Joe. I, too, believe you have to write from the heart and your voice will come out. Sometimes it's hard to define what your voice is until you've written a few books. Then your readers will tell you.

  8. Excellent tips, Joe! I also think, for fiction, the writer's voice for each book depends on the personality and background of the protagonist of that story, especially in deep point of view, since probably 70% or more of the story is going to be narration or dialogue from the protagonist's POV. So even the narration, description and exposition should be colored by that character's attitudes, like thoughts in his/her words. Even most setting details should be filtered through the MC's personality and mood, I think, to help draw the reader into the story world and forget there's an author.

  9. Thanks, Jordan. It takes a great deal of courage for a writer, especially a beginner, to let go of inhibitions and write with emotion. But that’s the secret to a strong voice.

    You’re right, Paula. Magic it is.

    Great tip, Jim, on reading poetry. Novelists don’t have to abide by the restrictions of poetry or song lyrics, so reading poetry is a terrific way to see “economy of words” in action.

    BK, I think we all wanted to write like our favorite authors when we started out. There’s nothing wrong with that. But at some point, our own voice should start to come through, especially if we love what we do.

    Elizabeth, you’re spot on—the more you know about your character(s), the stronger your voice will be.

    Kathy, you raise a good point. My post today, as are most of my blogs, aimed at the beginning writer. My goal is to help new writers avoid the mistakes I made as I started my career. But there are many examples of professional writers who strive to replicate a particular voice other than their own because that’s their goal. My friend Raymond Benson and his numerous James Bond novels are good examples.

    Exactly, Nancy. As I’ve said many times here, you can’t hide your love of your story from your readers.

    I agree, Jodie. As mentioned in a previous comment, the more you know your characters, the stronger the voice becomes. Again, you can’t hide it. And when it’s not there, nothing will help the reader find it.

  10. Right. You can't hide it.

    It seems more like the "Voice"--the "Writer"--found me. I keep out of the way and help out where I can. I am more the "Editor" or the "Administrator" in the partnership. I do structure and pose the hard questions. I check in with the "Boys in the basement." But I control the Delete key. Ha! Ha!

    Sure enough, the "Writer's Voice" becomes the "Voice" in the reader's head. Well, only if the reader allows the "Voice" to come inside. And this kind of thing persists through time. Amazing, eh?

  11. Joe, I like how you compare this to musicians playing the same piece and how it sounds different. I never thought of it that way.

    When I start a new book, or am even stuck on what a character would do in a certain situation,I freewrite about the character to get inside their head. And you refer to this by how we can write intuitively to find our "voice." I would think it would be harder to try and be like another writer as a novel is an awful long expanse to keep up a consistent voice that doesn't feel like "your voice."

    A tip James Scott Bell here also gave in his novel workshop when stuck on a character is to pick a random word in the dictionary and write a scene using that word from a character's viewpoint. Another way to "find your voice." Thanks for the insight and inspiration!

  12. Right on, Joe.

    I'm in a writer's group with several young writers. A couple of them seem to be overly concerned with "writing something original". So they try tricky things like writing in present tense for no reason or holding off until the end of the story to hit you with a twist that no one saw coming.

    One had a flying dog who pooped in the bad guy's eyes so the protagonist could grab the gun. And no, it wasn't a comedy, at least not intentionally. And no, we didn't know about the dog in advance.

    It took me years to understand the simple truth. That your voice, your natural voice, is what makes your stories unique. As a young writer, ignore it, it will come on its own.

    Starting with Homer or Sophocles or one of those old Greek guys, every writer has wanted to be original. As a small green person told Luke, Don't try, just do.

  13. Jim, I have the same thing take place often. I know some will say that the writer is in charge, but it never ceases to amaze me what I “learn” from my characters and the surprises they toss at me. What a great job we writers have.

    Donna, I agree that freewriting or stream of consciousness can be extremely revealing. It's one of the best ways to kick start your writing. I also agree that Rev. Bell has been known to come up with some nifty tips every once in a while.

    Brian, a flying, pooping dog is wrong on so many levels. And those old Greek guys were pretty good at coming up with solid advice. BTW, I don’t know about you, but I hate present tense, even if there is a good reason for it. Just sayin’.

  14. I like Einstein's quote: If you can't tell it simply, then you don't understand it well enough. :)

  15. Thanks for that, Diane. Albert was a smart fellow.

  16. Phooey. Well, there goes the genesis for my Orion's Dog story down the drain. Thanks, Brian.

  17. Having been an oral story teller for many years, often retelling the same stories over and again to various audiences, finding my writing voice seemed to come naturally. I can only act the way I would act, and I can only write the way I can write.

    Realizing I could never be the "next" Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth or Jack Higgins, I settled for being Basil (pronounced with a short 'a' and a 'z' in my professional life) instead.

    I have found my writing's gravelly like Edward James Olmos, deep like James Earl Jones, has a slight English accent with an added twist of something like Mickey Mouse after big ears has had a couple gin & tonics.

  18. Basil, if anyone would have a unique writer's voice, it would be you. And somehow, your description is exactly what I would have expected except maybe for the English accent. On second thought, maybe that works, too.

  19. Weighing in very late in the day, but just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this post, Joe. I think beginning writers sometimes imagine no one would be interested in their stories if they didn't try to mimic someone with more experience. They don't trust themselves, I remember those days. :)But I still have to remind myself from time to time to just go with the flow and not fret.

  20. Exactly right, Jillian. It's tough in the beginning to try forcing a voice when the best thing is to just write. The voice will come.

  21. Excellent post, and comments.

    When the editor of my first book wrote that I had "a unique voice and style" I had only a vague idea what he was referring to. Now I do, thanks to you. Starting today, I will be writing to that "one reader" as if it were a friend I am sending a letter to.

  22. Sella, glad to hear the tips helped. Thanks for dropping by TKZ. Come back often.