What is a writing voice & how you can find yours

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man with a megaphone

A couple of months ago I spent 4 days inside the walls of the Novotel in Homebush (Sydney), locked away with around 380 women with one thing on their mind: romance. Or, to be more specific, romance writing. The event was the annual Romance Writers of Australia Conference and I came away, my head buzzing with information, my fingers itching to type and one topic at the forefront of my mind – how I found my writing voice.

It was the Pitch Perfect session that did it

This was one of the most interesting sessions at the conference. Here, the opening pages of submitted manuscripts are read aloud to a panel of agents and publishers. They then comment on whether they would keep reading, ask for more and give general feedback on what they heard.

Even without commentary from the panel this is such an instructive session. As an audience member you get to hear the submissions and work out what works and what doesn’t. And the thing that’s most obvious when manuscripts are read aloud? The writer’s voice.

Generally an opening has to get the reader’s attention in the first few lines and there are a number of ways to do this – attention grabbing images, action, a disturbance, a question raised, but right from the beginning, if the voice works, the reader is hooked.

So what is this elusive beast called voice and how can you establish it?

Every person has their own distinctive voice – their own way of speaking and saying things. If you listen to three different people telling the same story they’ll all tell it in a different way. The word choice, the length of the sentences, the bits they choose to leave out or exaggerate – all these elements will vary according to the character of the person speaking.

The same is true of writing

Each writer has their own way of telling a story and their own way of seeing the world. It’s this unique perspective along with the individual writing style that creates voice.

One of the most distinctive voices I’ve come across in literature is that of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger:
IF YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

From the opening phrase the voice is distinctive and consistent.

Here’s another couple of examples:

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up. He let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink. I don’t want to sleep in a boy’s locker room, Aisha would complain on the rare, inadvertent moments when he forgot himself in front of her. Through the years he had learned to rein his body in, to allow himself to only let go in solitude; pissing and farting in the shower, burping alone in the car, not washing or brushing his teeth all weekend when she was away at conferences.

You Gotta Have Balls by Lily Brett
‘Why are you talking about men and how smart they are?’ was one of the first things Sonia Kaufman had said to Ruth Rothwax when they met about ten years ago. ‘Why are you talking about men and how smart they are? You should be talking about menopause. It’s looming.’ It had made Ruth laugh. Ruth and Sonia were the same age. Fifty-four. Both had grown up in Australia but had met in New York. Sonia was an intellectual property lawyer for a large law firm. Her husband was a senior partner in the same firm.

Even apart from the subject matter none of these could be mistaken for the other. The choice of words, the way the sentences are put together, the sensibility of the speaker are all different. Some writers will have a voice that is so unique it can be identified within a few sentences. Others have a more neutral voice – or at least one that’s not so obvious.

Is the writer’s voice the same as the narrator’s voice?

In the case of a memoir, blog or even poetry the answer would be yes. The writer is telling us about their own experiences just as they would be if we were sitting down to lunch. But for fiction the answer is no, not always. It depends on the point of view you choose to write from. Of course the writer is the one who decides which words to put on the page and how to go about telling the story but this will all be filtered through the consciousness of the narrator.

If you’re writing in the first person

The voice will be that of your main character (or whoever is telling the story). You need to have a clear understanding of:

  • how your protagonist speaks
  • how they see the world
  • what they would choose to tell us and what they would leave out
  • how they perceive the other characters and the situations in which they find themselves

You need to know them inside and out so the voice in which they speak is authentic. In the case of first person narration the writer’s voice is heavily disguised by the voice of the narrator.

In third person limited narration

Where the story is told by an outside narrator but through the consciousness of the protagonist (or another character) the writer’s voice and the narrator’s voice are blended. The reader will experience some events through the mindset of the protagonist and others from the point of view of the narrator. There is no definite distinction between the two as the narrative unfolds.

In third person omniscient or second person narration

The voice of the outside narrator will be clear. The storyteller may be the writer or it could be a persona created by the writer in which case the voice will again reflect the character of that narrator.

So how do you develop your voice? 

Write, write and write, and then write some more.

SEE ALSO: How you can free yourself with freewriting and create a creative compost heap

Every writer has a voice – it’s just a matter of uncovering it and the best way to do this is by freewriting. Write without censoring or editing or blocking. Don’t be afraid to say just what you want to say the way you want to say it. Don’t try to write like someone else. Just write and let the words flow and see what comes out.

In the words of writing guru Donald Maass:

To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan you that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story. (Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maass)

This will take time and patience

Most of us find it very difficult to turn off our internal editor, the one who tells us ‘you can’t write that’ or ‘don’t use that ridiculous word’. But if you keep at it, teach yourself to write with the censor turned off, you will eventually develop your own writing voice, one that will start to come as naturally as taking your next breath.

How have you found your writing voice? Is there any specific technique you’ve used? Let us know in the comments.

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