Voice is one of those areas that writing instructors and publishing insiders talk about a lot but is hard to nail down. That’s because voice is as much about your gut reaction as it is the art and technique of writing.
Many people say they know a good voice when they read one. But what exactly does that mean? Are they talking about the point of view or POV? We talk a lot about POV in writing and editing circles, and POV refers to which character is talking at the moment. So it makes sense that we automatically assume POV has something to do with voice, and it does. But voice is also its own distinct element of writing.
Publishing industry expert Nathan Bransford said:
“Voice, at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes. It’s a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context.”
When it comes to our writing, voice marks our particular style. Over time, as we practice the craft, get better and more confident in it, and discover what projects really get us excited, our voices—the style and personality in which we write—will become as distinct as our fingerprints.
It’s easy to connect voice and character. After all, our characters talk to each other. It’s through their external and their internal dialogue that we find out what’s going on, what they’re sharing, what they’re hiding, and how they view the world. If we know all of these things as well as we know ourselves, making our character’s voice stand out should become easy over time.
When our characters are clear in our minds, their voices are clear to us and to our readers. Their voices shape the story and the plot and help us to figure out both, which in turn can help us figure out what our voices are as writers.
A strong voice in a character will make us feel like the people we’re reading about are in the next room instead of between the covers of a book or inside a device. When the voices are strong, the rest of the book is brought up to the same level.
Even though they may not realize it, voice is what readers respond to when they light up at the names of their favorite authors. Readers go to their favorite authors again and again because of the characters and the plots, but they also go to them for the voice and personality the author has. That author’s style and perspective is something they enjoy and want more of.
This style and perspective go from the broadest sense of the genre an author writes in or the types of stories they prefer to the most micro level of the rhythm of the language itself. Poets spend as much time thinking about rhythm and the musicality of language as they do about the subject of their poems. Some prose authors also spend a lot of time thinking about how words and sentences land in terms of their rhythm. As you spend more time writing and practicing the craft, you’ll not only start to see these examples of style yourself, you’ll also notice your own tendencies toward certain writing patterns and genres.
A writer’s voice is as much about the genre you write in as anything else. It’s also about who we are as people, which is reflected in what we write about. This can be connected to your life stage or an experience that dominates your attention for a while. Established authors often mine their own lives for story ideas, and these can be connected to the authors’ voices.
You might be thinking, “Experienced authors know how to use their writing voices to tell a story, because they’ve been doing it for a long time. How can I develop my voice as a writer?”
All writers start their journeys in a place where they’re learning. Newer writers, don’t stress out about finding your writing voice early on. If you focus on the nuts and bolts of writing first, like plot and story and character and even down to the mechanical level of good grammar and spelling, eventually your writing voice will come through on its own.
It’s part of the art of writing. And art isn’t something that can always be calculated or engineered. Sometimes it just needs to simmer on the back burner while you’re focusing on getting all the other ingredients measured and mixed properly.
Most writers are readers first. Make a list over six months of all the books and stories you read and what genre they’re in, then scan the list. Chances are you’ll notice a pattern, a tendency to read more in certain genres than others.
After that, look at the writing you did in that same time period. Make a note of the genres you wrote in; there’s probably some overlap, if not a complete correlation. And you’ll probably discover that you gravitate toward certain topics and story ideas and subconsciously turn away from others. This becomes a circular process. When you read a certain type of book, you’ll tend toward writing stories and books like that.
Reading and writing in those areas also sharpens some skills and leaves other skills less developed. Different genres require different skill sets and different treatments of language. If you don’t read in certain, your skill set to write in them is going to be limited.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though writers can dabble in a variety of genres, there’s nothing wrong with them sticking with one or two where they feel like their writing is the strongest.
That doesn’t mean you ignore other genres completely, and that’s where reading those other genres comes in. Because even if you don’t write in them, repeated exposure to other styles of writing—other voices—will ultimately challenge you to think in more innovative ways about your own work. It will keep your writing from becoming stale or repetitive or flat out bland.
A writer’s voice is that thing we react to on impulse. It’s that magical part of writing that readers look for when they go back to their favorite authors again and again. It’s also a lot of hard work to develop over time, but if you keep writing regularly and keep reading regularly, eventually your writing voice will become as distinctive as your fingerprints, and both will leave a mark on your readers.