What is voice?

finding your voiceAh, voice. As writers, we hear about it a lot. Lately, I’ve seen discussion of it crop up on social media, and I’ve been scribbling a lot of notes about voice in the margins of the manuscripts I’ve been editing.

We’ve all heard the advice: Write what you want to read. And this, I think, has just as much to do with voice as is does plot. A lot of finding your voice has to do with telling the story you want to tell in such a way that only you could tell it. Your voice is the particular tone, style, technique, and word choices you use to tell your story, but it’s also the unique perspective, personality, and flavor that only you can bring to it. How you approach the world, how you interpret your surroundings, and how you filter it all onto the page is your voice.

You’re totally clear on what voice is now, right?

This is why we can procrastinate and resist writing. This is why we’d sometimes rather comb the cat or clean toilets than park our bums and just write. Because if you start to think about voice, or more precisely, if you start to wonder what voice is and how does one find such a thing and what if you don’t have one, not much writing will get done because panic will open the door for that inner critic, and the inner critic will win.

First of all, you have a voice. You do. But we always talk about finding that voice. Here’s a trick: go back and read old writings, whether they be journal entries, blog posts, whatever, but read them chronologically. Start with the oldest piece of writing and work your way to the present. I bet you’ll see a thread of recognition in each one, and I bet that thread gets more vibrant the closer you get to your most current writings. That thread of recognition? Those telltale signs that some bit of writing is yours and yours alone? That’s your voice. And it’s not your voice because it’s brilliant or quirky or offbeat or astoundingly new, though it may be. It’s your voice because, even when taken out of context, it’s your style — your particular makeup of word choice, flow, rhythm, cadence, personality, and perspective.

A good voice is original and credible. A good voice has the ability to remain consistent even as the plot shifts. A good voice carries the reader through to the end of the piece, essay, novel, etc. but doesn’t overshadow the story.

So here’s how to succeed in finding your voice: don’t overthink it. This is why freewriting can be so powerful. Get out of your own way, write a lot, and most likely your voice will find you. Be mindful of the narrative techniques you tend to gravitate toward (metaphors, hyperbole, foreshadowing, backstory, etc.) but don’t obsess over them*, and try not to veer wildly off course. (i.e. Sophie Kinsella said that she once tried to write a thriller wherein she had written a cast of really nice people who suddenly started killing each other.)

*In the process of finding and cultivating your voice through journal entries, first drafts of novels, picture books, essays, etc. it’s fine to fall back on devices like metaphors and backstory, etc., but once you move on to subsequent drafts you’ll need to take a critical eye to the piece and try to recognize when something is overplayed.

Discovering our voice means we have to write the story we want to read in the most authentic way we can, which is the only way it’s going to be a success. Scratch that. It’s the only way we’ll write to the end.

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9 thoughts on “What is voice?

  1. manofnature says:

    Thanks for the post; it is true (for me at any rate) that among the chiefest causes for procrastination is a bewilderment as to the correct voice to assume–or perhaps a cynical self-loathing of one’s current literary voice. We must uncork the vessels of our souls, until we let that voice become our own. So write on! I wait to hear more wisdom.

  2. kayfroebel says:

    “It’s your voice because, even when taken out of context, it’s your style — your particular makeup of word choice, flow, rhythm, cadence, personality, and perspective.” – This right here was my favorite part of this entire post. This is something that I obsess over when I read, and even more so when editing for a client. There are times where I can read a segment of a story, and know who wrote it by recognizing their unique “style”. Many of my favorite authors and novels are ones I feel “own” their voice, and don’t try to mimic other successful authors. Great post, great post! (As usual!)

  3. Kristen says:

    Great advice. I just finished a draft of an 11,000 word story that, on the first go round, had no “voice”–but while editing and tweaking, it’s starting to shine through. I am new to writing stories of this length and so it’s taken me a while to get my voice stride (unlike my blog or an essay where I think it’s more solidified now). You have some really great reminders and insight here–thank you.

  4. strugglingwriter says:

    It’s tough. For me, at least, voice isn’t something I could find. It was just something that happened after just writing and writing and writing. If you write enough, a voice will develop. But it takes time, which is the worst thing for somebody who just wants to do a thing wants to hear.

  5. Lindsey Mead (@lemead) says:

    Laughing at your “you’re totally clear now, right?” … on, yes. So clear and yet so fuzzy, at least that is how I feel about this. But I do resonate with the image of something insistent that will not be silenced. That’s what it feels like for me. xox

  6. Nina Badzin says:

    So well described, Lara. Someone (one person, really) once told me that no matter the topic she would know I was the writer without my name on it. That one comment has given me some needed confidence for the past few years. YEARS, for real. That is how much I know voice matters. And yes it can feel overwhelming to make sure it’s there. But I think of her comment and try to just GO because it IS there, like you said, if you don’t force it.

  7. Dina L. Relles says:

    This post has stayed with me, and I’ve been thinking back on it a lot lately. Among my greatest concerns in my writing is consistency, which is probably just another way of getting at voice. I worry that I can morph to meet the needs or style of a particular site or prompt, and at what cost? If I can churn out a snarky humor post one day and then draft a lyrical essay on love or faith the next, does that mean I don’t have a distinct voice as a writer? A person? It’s less common these days, but I used to observe my tendency to be a sort of chameleon in social interactions–changing, adjusting every so slightly to meet the expectations of my companion or the situation. It wasn’t something I was proud of, often made me feel ‘fake’ or insecure about who I was at my core, but it happened/happens nevertheless. I love, and take comfort in, the Walt Whitman quote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.” But at the end of the day, I worry and wonder what this means as far as this ever-elusive notion of ‘voice.’ Thank you for these thought-provoking reflections, Lara. *Your* voice is truly a thing to behold. xo

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