Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Writer's Voice

A writer sent me an email asking me to talk about voice. I instantly groaned. Because I knew we should talk about it, but I also knew it was going to be an impossible thing to teach.

Whenever I've read an interview with an agent or editor, and they're asked "What are you looking for in a writer?" the first thing they usually say is, "A great voice."

Your writing voice is your unique way of phrasing things. When you say something and your friend says, "Oh, that's so you," or, "I knew that's what you were going to say," they're talking about your voice.

Are you familiar with the band Cake? (Click here if you're not, and you can listen to some music off their web site.) Nobody sounds like Cake ... except Cake. And Cake sounds like Cake all the time. Whether they're doing an original like Never There or covering I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor.

In the music business they call it a "sound." In writing we call it voice. And even though it seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world to write in your voice, it's not. It takes confidence and honesty and practice. And a lot of times you don't even know that you're "there" until someone - a writing friend, your agent - says, "You have a great voice."

I wish there were a recipe for voice, but there's not. Instead, I'll tell you what helped me, and hopefully it'll do something for you:

My door stayed closed for 3 years

When we talked about writing your first draft with your door open or closed (click here for the post) I mentioned that I believe I got published so young in part because my friend scared me off from sharing my work. After that happened, I wrote for years (three, if my fuzzy brain can be trusted) without showing anyone anything. I was determined to not be hurt again. (Which was dumb. Getting hurt is just part of a writer's life.)

While in some ways it slowed my progress to not have anyone critiquing me, I honestly feel it helped more than it hurt. Because I was free to write without concern of what people thought. By the time I entered into my first critique group, I was (unknowingly) only a few months away from acquiring my agent. I had found my voice, and I was secure enough to not let anyone mess with it.

I studied writers I love

One of the ways I found my voice was to read lots of good books by writers I love. I don't know how to explain why this helps, but I'll try anyway. When we fall in love with a book, it's because the author has touched something inside of us. Sometimes they articulate things that we didn't even know we felt.

I felt that way when I first discovered Sarah Dessen. Reading This Lullaby unlocked something inside of me. When I went back to writing after having read that book, the first few pages were pure imitation. But then, a chapter or two in, a phrase popped out that was all mine, that sounded like me. Slowly, I was no longer imitating.

Reading great writers helps our voice evolve. Yes, I've had the experience of getting so captured by a book that my voice momentarily suffered. This happened a couple years ago when I was too sick to write and wound up reading all four books of the Twilight saga in one week. I came back to my manuscript and had a major identity crisis. At first my voice was a little bent, but it self-corrected pretty quickly.

I wrote. A lot.

You're not going to find your voice by taking a class or reading a blog post. I've yet to hear a writer say, "I had no voice, and then I read Find Your Voice in a Week by Sue Smith, and presto!" You will find your voice by writing. Particularly, I think, by writing the stories you want to write, not just ones you think will sell.

Those are the three things that helped me most. What about you? Do you feel like you have a voice? Do you have any other tips?


  1. Thanks for the great post, Mrs. Morrill. I don't think I have much of a voice, but my creative writing teacher and some people in my writing group have said differently. I tend to write in longer sentences with a good amount of description and some bigger words. Is that a writer's voice?
    Can't wait to see the top 20 of last week's prompt!

  2. When I think voice, Anita Higman springs to mind. When I read a novella written by her a few years ago, my main thought was, "Wow, this is some voice." She has a way of turning phrases that, like it or hate it (I like it), is HER. Which is awesome.

    For my part, my voice has become thoroughly entangled with my education. After going through the Great Books at my college, I'm hard-pressed to write a book that doesn't somehow include a reference to an Ancient Greek, an obscure physicist, or a political philosopher. It may be referenced in a joke (such as "puffed up like a marshmallow in a vacuum"), but referenced it must be. My agent dubbed my writing, "Intelligent, even when the subject isn't." I decided that was a compliment, LOL. Mostly, it's just ME. Like it or hate it. ;-)

  3. These are all really good points! I believe studying writers that I love tends to help me the most in finding my voice for the same reasons you mentioned. I also wrote a post on voice a while back if you'd like to take a look. =)

    I think that every writer and author, no matter how experienced they are, still have room to improve their voice. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. I feel like I have found my voice. And reading has certainly helped me with it.

    But the deal is I have like 3 different voices that can be separate or mesh into one. For different stories I use different voices. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not. I've always written like this, and that's probably why I always have a least 2 different stories in the works at once. I feel very comfortable in all of them. Very settled.

    So maybe I'm still searching?

  5. I don't think I've found my voice yet, I bet it pops up here and there without me realizing it though!  Sometimes I think I stifle it by trying too hard to be a good writer, does that make sense?

    I have been thinking about taking more time to write just myself and want I want to write.  without showing anyone. Its easy to think everything  you write has to be for a book that is publishable but Im working on untangling that lie & not putting pressure on myself. 

    I did read an article that talked about one way to find your voice & genre is to look at the way you talk in real life with your closest friends. Are you snarky? That could point to chick lit & options like that. I haven't figured out how to describe how I talk daily or well I don't know the genre it fits, I guess?

  6. Well I think my problem is already solved about finding my voice =) I never write books that I think I wanna sell, I write whatever comes into my brain lol.
    I really hope I am putting my own self in my books, (if that makes any sense) I want my books to be ME.
    Though I guess I just should keep on writing and doing what I love.... =)
    I really hope my books express everything I am.

  7. My apologies for being AWOL yesterday. It was "one of those days" with my kids. I'll leave it at that.

    Sarah, that can definitely play a part in a writer's voice, yes. Word choice, sentence structure ... all a part of it. It's also what Roseanna mentioned in her comment. The kinds of analogies we use and such.

    Tessa, you make a great point. Our voices should always be evolving and maturing. Your voice post looks like it has some really valuable tips in there. I've bookmarked it for a more thorough reading later. Thanks for sharing!

    Tonya, I definitely think we can bog down our voice with the pressures we put on ourselves. Your idea, of taking time to write whatever you feel like, sounds like a good one. And I think who we are and the way we talk/think definitely plays a big part in our genres!

    Jazmine, that's something I strive for too. It's good to take the focus off, "Is this publishable? Is there a market for this?"

  8. I'm pretty confident I've found mine - no matter if I write an essay for class, or a story, or even a blog post, everything sounds _right_ when I write. We did a project a while back in my creative writing class with voice, how we needed to include as much lyricism as we could (alliteration excluded, as it was too easy). Mine turned out really well, and even rereading it now, it still sings just like it did when I wrote it.
    To me, voice isn't just about what you say, but how you say it. Words have music behind them, and the best writers can make those notes chime in just the right order so's you have an entire orchestra ringing in your ears for hours after you finish insomuch as a page.
    My advice for others still searching? Listen to your work. Read it out lout to yourself, go with your instincts - when it sounds wrong, fix it.
    Roseanna - I can't write without trademark references, either, though mine are usually puns or literature. Once I even described a character as the "light of my life, the cook of my dreams" and my editor had to point out it was an allusion to _Lolita_. Didn't even cross my mind!

  9. Wow, as I am writing this comment I noticed that this post is four years old, so forgive me. I found my voice by blogging. At first I didn't share my blog with any of my family or friends, but then I found my voice and was more confident.
    Thanks for all you guys do with this blog,