What is Voice?
Voice. It’s a mysterious word that freaks writers out. What is voice? How do I find my voice? Do I have enough voice?
Over my years at doing this writing thing, I’ve gotten some sense of what this means. It’s basically the style with which a writer writes. Like the flavor of how it sounds.
I will attempt an example. Here is a basic statement: It’s raining outside and my car windows are down.
Simple and clean. You know what’s happening, you can imagine why this might be a problem. Here are three different ways to present the same information, but the feel of each is different:
It started pouring and I jumped to my feet and ran to the door. My baby was getting wet!
The rain hit the roof in a twinkling symphony, and I glanced outside to see what I knew was true. The windows of my car—down.
I had known it was gonna start storming. Always does this time a year. I punched my hand into my palm. Left those pickup windows down. Again.
See the difference? Each one has its own personality. If you asked a roomful of people to describe the same event, no one would choose exactly the same words. That’s voice.
So how do you write with more voice? Well, basically, look for sentences that are dull and flat. Ones that just say a fact without adding any feeling. “It’s raining” versus “Heaven is crying.”
So Where’s Yours?
Here’s the good news. You already have a voice. The bad news? It may not be that interesting or prevalent. Think of someone who has a very calm, straightforward personality, versus someone colorful and exciting. Doesn’t it seem like someone with a bunch of energy has the volume turned up?
Would a child ever just say flatly, “It’s raining.” Nope. There’d be bouncing of feet, exclamations of “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” There’d be begging to play in the mud and dig for worms and splash in puddles. There’d be whining. There’d be tears for the missed whatever was supposed to happen that day. But there also might be the child who sits and quietly watches the drops fall into puddles and finds it fascinating. Whatever it is, annoying or endearing, loud or contemplative—it’s vivid and emotional. Children, the younger they are especially, are bursting with personality, and they don’t care who knows it.
This is what needs to happen in your writing. You must turn up the volume, add in some emotion and personality. And by emotion, I don’t mean: “He watched the rain leaking in his open car windows and felt sad.” I mean, “He watched the rain bead up on the car’s pristine cherry red hood. The windows were cracked enough to let the drops of water in and he imagined that was how his heart looked. Cracked open, nothing but cold and gloom getting in.” It’s that ever-constant bit of writing advice—show, don’t tell.
Finding Your Voice
I recently did an unintentional experiment in voice. I wrote a short story that I submitted to an anthology contest for horror stories with a gothic feel. My usual writing style is not what I would consider gothic. I love Poe, but I don’t write like him.
When I wrote this story, the tone and feel of it was so different from what I always write that it was much more difficult to write. It was more difficult to edit. Luckily, I had seven amazing beta readers to help me cull out the bull, but wow. If I wasn’t sure what my voice sounded like before, I have a much better clue now.
If you’re not sure about your own voice, try writing something in a specific style. Go for that old-worldly historical feel. Try something with snarky humor like Janet Evanovich or Christopher Moore. Try something clean and minimalistic like Raymond Carver or Junot Diaz. Go for action-packed and full of tension like Dean Koontz or Stephen King. Try it all!
Pay attention to what comes naturally and what feels like it takes immense effort to produce. Now, I was able to conjure a story which I felt confident enough to submit. But it was so much harder, that I never want to attempt writing outside of my natural voice again. It took the fun and joy out of writing.
This makes me wonder if this eternal question of “Is writing hard?” really just comes down to trying to write that which does not come naturally. If you are finding writing hard, shake it up a bit. Try everything until you find the thing that works best. Then, turn the volume up, and go!
In parts two and three, I’ll talk about the difference of a writer’s voice and a character’s voice, and how to work on bringing out your own style.
8 thoughts on “Finding Your Writing Voice – Part 1 of 3”
I like the way you put this. I’ve read some good stories where the writing was so-so, but the path through them is more fun if the style grabs you along the way. I blogged on a related top almost a year ago: http://www.duanevore.com/are-you-a-writer-or-a-storyteller/. I added you to my blogroll, but I’m not so sure they accomplish anything.
You’re right–style can make a huge difference! That’s why I enjoyed The Spectacular Now so much when it was a pretty simple, common plot. Thanks for sharing your article. It’s an interesting question to consider! I aim for storyteller, but I think I’m still getting there.
Whenever I talk about my work with my writing partner, I tell folks: he’s the writer and I’m the storyteller. He’s a far better structured writer than I am, and he’s prose is very clean. Mine is a bit more muddled, and filled with character. Throughout the years, we’ve learned when the can work together (on our projects) and when they don’t (on our own projects). The bigger point, though, is that his style and my voice are best suited for different types of stories, and we try very hard to make sure we consider that.
For instance: I won’t try to tackle a project that requires his clarity. Certainly I could learn how to do that, but why? He already does that better than I can. I think that has given us each the ability to explore our own author voices, knowing that we don’t need to adapt for different jobs because we can pass along projects to each other.
Sounds like you’ve tried writing outside of your voice and you found it just as hard as I did! You;e found your strength, now, though :)
Interesting post about voice, Denise. I find that my voice ends up telling me something about the kind of audience I am attracting. I’m not sure I would consider my voice “boring” but it is straightforward, almost critical, without much emotional tone. I would guess my audience is the literary or academic type, so I think my voice is appropriate. But per your suggestion, I have also tried “putting on” different voices, as well. Thanks for the insights. Joe
I don’t think that makes you boring at all! Look at Raymond Carver. He has a very straight-forward and minimalistic style, too. Almost journalistic and he’s quite popular :) You’re right about voice matching the audience. I didn’t think of it that way, but it’s very necessary!
Excellent piece. Even though you said you struggle to write outside your own voice, the examples you gave were really distinct.
This is something I’ve been struggling with ever since I started reading books on writing. Sometimes I think all that advice made me over think my writing and may have ruined my natural voice. It’s so hard to tell since I don’t really have any good beta readers. I’ve tried to find some, but so far without success.
P.S. I’m a web designer by day and a writer by night as well. This is my first time on your site. All the best to you with you and your writing.
Thank you! It is easy to over think it. I’ve found that it works best to consider and try all writing advice, then see what works for you. Betas and critique partners are so important! Join some writing groups, even if online, and make some friends. NaNoWriMo is great for meeting writers, though it just ended. If you’re into fantasy and sci-fi, https://www.facebook.com/groups/thedragonsrocketship/ is awesome. There’s also Critique Circle and many others that work on a critique for critique basis. There’s probably also at least one or two local groups wherever you are. If not, start one!
And you’re a web/writer, too! What a coincidence :)