The Writer's Voice

10 Writers on Writing: Finding and Fashioning a Voice

voice - shakespeare
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Let me give you Dr. Don's Rule for Distinguished Writing. It's in the voice. You get a call from a friend, you know right away who it is. One paragraph, you know the voice.
(Donald Newlove, First Paragraphs: Inspired Openings for Writers and Readers. St. Martin's Press, 1992)

What is a writer's voice? It's a familiar metaphor, of course, perhaps an oxymoron as well. But does voice refer to an aspect of writing that's waiting to be discovered, or is it a distinctive method that must be crafted and cultivated over time?

Is it a synonym for style, tone, persona, or diction--or is voice something altogether different from any of these qualities?

While many authors, like Dr. Don, insist that voice is an essential element of effective writing, few agree on just what that element is or even how to recognize it.

To spur your thinking on the nature of voice in writing, we've gathered these 10 observations (some contradictory, others complementary) from professional writers and teachers of writing.

  • Defining Voice
    Like a singer's, a writer's voice is an elusive thing, the sum of everything that goes into his or her style of expression. A distinctive vocabulary might contribute to it. So might a preference for particular sentence forms or syntax. Or voice might emerge from even more subtle dimensions of writing. Unique angles of approach to subjects, maybe. Or a characteristic pace or degree of formality.

    Ultimately, voice is the writer's personal style coming through in the writing. It's as complex and varied as human personality itself.
    (Jack Hart, A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words That Work. Pantheon, 2006)

     
  • Crafting Voice
    The critical fact to remember is that the writer's voice is artificial. It's an act of artifice, crafted by the professional to achieve a specific effect in a work of the imagination. It's not the "real" writer's voice and if you try to find your own, you'll drive yourself crazy. Because "you" don't really exist. I don't either, no matter how convincingly anybody tells us that we do or how much we choose to believe it. . . .

    The writer's voice . . . arises from the material itself and acts in service to that material. . . .

    Alas, the finding is a mystery. Sometimes the voice pops into your head without effort, a gift of the Muse. Other times you have to pound your skull into the wall for months. Sometimes it never comes at all.
    (Steven Pressfield, "The Writer's Voice." Steven Pressfield Online, August 18, 2009)

     
  • Metaphorically Speaking
    Voice is not a perfect metaphor for writing style, which is why it's just a metaphor. Writing is much more premeditated than speaking: we are allowed to mull over our words for an awfully long time before setting them down, and once they are down, on the page or screen, we can look at them, puzzle over them, revise them. . . . Yet even the most thoughtful writers can stare at a sentence for a whole day and not realize precisely how readers will "hear" it. A part of style is unintentional or even unconscious; as Richard Burton said, it betrays us.
    (Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page. HarperCollins, 2004)

     
  • Finding the Voice
    To my writing classes I used . . . to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: "How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?" That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. . . . If something is worth hearing or listening to, it's very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
    (Christopher Hitchens, "Unspoken Truths." Vanity Fair, June 2011)

     
  • Distinguishing Grammatical Voice and Writing Voice
    You remember the lessons about voice from school: first person (I, we), second person (you), third person (all-seeing). The grammatical voice you (or your editor) prefer depends on the story, the publication, and your skill. . . .

    Writing voice is the way an author expresses personal attitude--through word choice, asides, sentence flow, paragraph density, and other individual stylistic devices. This voice is a function of style and authority. Style breathes life in the authorial voice and point of view. . . . Develop a writer's voice by setting aside expectations. Practice writing without a goal or a particular publication in mind to explore true personal voice.
    ( L. Peat O'Neil, Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story, 2nd ed. Writer's Digest Books, 2006)

     
  • Distinguishing Voice and Style
    A writer's voice is what people sometimes mean by style, although technically style refers to the words a writer chooses. Style is the objective data on the printed page that a literary critic studies. . . . Voice, however, is different. Like stage presence in actors, voice emerges from a writer's being. The writer is often unconscious of it and does not always try to create it. Often too, the untrained reader responds to it without knowing just what it is. Voice inspires a subjective feeling in readers about a writer and . . . [u]sually it is the writer's voice that keeps a reader reading.
    (Edmund Blair Bolles, Introduction to Galileo's Commandment: 2,500 Years of Great Science Writing. W. H. Freeman, 1997)

     
  • Hearing the Voice
    We learned to speak before we wrote, and, even if we are writers, we speak thousands upon thousands of words more than we write in a day. When we write, we speak in written words. The magic of writing is that readers who may never meet us hear what we have written. Music rises from the page when we read.

    We call the heard quality of writing voice, and it may be the most important element in writing. Voice, like background music in a movie, is tuned to the writing, supports and extends what the writing says.
    (Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision. Harcourt, 2001)

     
  • Listening to Verbal Music
    What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you're yakking away to yourself all the time. . . . What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice--except that it comes out as writing.
    (Louis Menand, "Introduction: Voices." The Best American Essays 2004. Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

     
  • Gaining Confidence
    To find your voice, unless you're a crazy genius, you work your way through a bunch of phases. At one point, I was committed to writing the tightest transitions in the world--every sentence was locked in, like that kind of carpentry that dovetails a joint into the next. . . . Now when I see that, I react so negatively. It seems so phony to me. I had to learn to deconstruct a little bit. As I got more confident and grown-up, I felt that I could keep people paying attention, or bring them back in, not just by locking each sentence to the next but by putting in an aside, like saying, "By the way . . ."

    What was happening was, I was moving more towards writing the way I talk. I began to think of writing as being like telling a story at a dinner party, learning to use timing, how much detail to tell, how much not to tell. . . . I was moving toward something that was subtler, a little braver.
    (Susan Orlean, quoted by Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page. HarperCollins, 2004)

     
  • Becoming an Adult
    By comparing writing and psychoanalysis, I'm implying that finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult. . . .

    [Voice] reveals itself in details the eye doesn't easily take in--in some unexpected hesitation or cunning adverb or barely audible inflection that makes you sit up and take notice.
    (A. Alvarez, A Writer's Voice. Norton, 2004)

To continue this exploration, pick up a copy of Ben Yagoda's excellent book The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk About Style and Voice in Writing (HarperResource, 2005).