For many of us, just getting words down on a regular basis is a huge accomplishment. Generating story ideas and developing them is the bulk of our writing practice.
So when aspiring writers hear vague, jargon-y terms like “voice,” it might instill some trepidation. You might think you know what it means, but can’t quite put it into words. What the heck is a writing “voice”?
Or you know what it means, but have no idea whether you are writing in a consistent voice or not, let alone whether your voice appeals to readers: I hope people “get” me. I hope I sound like “a real writer.”
Maybe you are writing every day, and to think more broadly in terms of who you are as a writer, what you want to say, what you have already said, and so on, is too big-picture for you: I’m just going to keep writing and figure all this voice stuff out later.
Maybe it’s intimidating to have to consider who is reading your work and how they are interpreting it: I can’t worry about how I sound—what matters is whether the story is interesting, right?
Let me try to put your fears to rest by stating outright that the concept of voice is often difficult to grasp because there is no universal definition of it, and the reason there is no universal definition of it is that your writing voice is as unique as you are. There is no one voice, just as there is no one person!
However, we still need to be able to discuss it to better our understanding and, of course, our writing. What do we mean when we talk about a writer’s voice?
When writers talk about voice, they are referring to an authentic style or manner of speaking, reacting, verbally emoting, and so on. Your mannerisms, tone, inflections, favorite colloquialisms and slang, the pace and rhythm of your speaking voice—these vocal elements set you apart from everyone else. They are the reason you can hear your child’s call for help above all others on a crowded playground and identify your favorite actor from a voiceover commercial.
As a writer, your task is to make everything you write sound like it came from you and only you. You can start by learning what makes your voice distinct, developing it to make it as strong as it can be, and finally, not being afraid to use it. Here is a four-step exercise to help guide you in the process of defining your unique voice as a writer:
Study the voices of other writers
Make a list of your favorite books, stories, essays, or poems. What can you tell about the person who wrote them based on the writing itself? If your favorite pieces are fiction, then you are going to be looking at the voice of the narrator, the person telling the story. It might be the main character, or it might be an omniscient narrator, someone you don’t see or know, and who might or might not be the author. Examine the tone; the writer or speaker might be dry and sarcastic, or witty and irreverent, or warm and compassionate. Words matter, yes, but if you were listening to the audio book version instead of reading it, how would it sound? What tone of voice, what inflections, might the speaker(s) be using? Look at technical elements like punctuation, too. A writer who rambles might use a lot of words, but also trail off with ellipses. A frantic voice might rely on exclamation points, or use dashes to interject or interrupt one’s self or others. A writer might use all-caps to convey anger or excitement. Long, complex sentence structures might indicate an analytical mind, while a confident, authoritative speaker might use primarily direct, declarative sentences. So, what styles do you like best, and what kind of voice do those elements comprise?
If you have trouble with this exercise, consider instead what you don’t like in a narrator or writer—for example, a biting tone, or a long-winded rant. By identifying your distaste for self-righteousness or a negative attitude, you can add “nonjudgmental” and “positive” to your list of voice elements you like. Studying other writing voices will help you in making observations about your own voice.
Look at a piece of original writing that makes you proud
The next step might be to dig up a piece of writing that feels complete, and about which you feel a sense of pride. Repeat the exercise above with your own writing, now, and see if you can sketch out what elements comprise your voice. Make a list of five adjectives that you think describe your writing voice.
Do you like what you see? Here is where intent matters, too. We might not get to choose all our personality traits, but we are entirely in charge of the voice we create on paper. A strong writing voice will reflect the authenticity of the writer (i.e., don’t force an effervescent attitude if you are by nature a fairly calm and practical person) as well as the tone and mood a given piece of writing requires based on its subject (i.e., even the calmest, most practical person might feel effervescent about the birth of their child). Consider both your natural traits and the topics you’re writing about when developing your voice, and strive for a balance (i.e., how would a normally calm person experience and display effervescence?), for landing somewhere on the spectrum between the two.
Write something new
Now that you have a better understanding of your voice—the voice you naturally convey as well as the voice you want to convey—it’s time to write something new.
Writing a letter is a great way to capture your authentic speaking voice. Think about a recent argument you had with someone. Write a letter in which you explain your side of the story. Try, in your letter, to exemplify all five of the adjectives you identified in the previous step as characteristic of your writing voice. Remember again that punctuation and sentence structure, those technical elements of writing, can do has much heavy lifting as word choice. If the word “nervous” appeared on your list, you might go back and forth a lot between two points, unable to decide on one or the other. But you might also use fragments and dashes to interrupt your train of thought, too. If you tend to use certain slang or catch phrases, or a specific way of greeting others, incorporate them into your letter. Make sure the person receiving your letter has no doubt who it’s from, even if you don’t sign your name.
When your letter is finished, look for those five adjectives again. Does the letter sound distinctly like something you would write? Tack that list of five adjectives up somewhere visible, so you can keep it mind when you begin your next piece of writing.
Go one step further
What if you were writing another letter, not necessarily in response to an argument, this time to someone you don’t know? To a child? To someone for whom English is a second language? To an extraterrestrial, a famous person, an ancestor who lived a thousand years ago? The words will change, won’t they? But the voice should be consistent. How much of the content of the letter can you change while still retaining your voice, as characterized by those five adjectives?
Hopefully these exercises help you learn a little something about your writing self and not be afraid of using your distinct voice.
What did you learn about your writing voice? Was this exercise helpful? Do you have more questions about voice? Share with us in the comments!
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