Monday, February 9, 2015

How to Develop Your Writing Voice

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Hey, guys! After spending all last week getting my son transitioned to the ketogenic diet, I'm slowly easing my way back into regular life. (Or as regular as life can feel when you weigh every bit of food that goes in your son's mouth and tell him regularly, "No, buddy, you can't eat that.")  Thanks so much for your patience and kind words of encouragement last week! Still a lot of work ahead of us, but we're feeling pretty optimistic.

Connor napping in the hospital with a picture his sister made for him.
Onto writing voice.

If you hang around the writing community for very longor read any articles about what agents and editors like to see in a manuscriptyou will quickly come across the term "voice." Agents and editors love a writer with a lot of voice. They're a sucker for voice. They want a voice that draws them in.

Voice is simply the unique way that you string words together as a writer. Where the concept really gets murky is when you try to factor in character voice too. Your characters have unique voices (or that's what we're all striving for, anyway) so where does that fit in? That's actually a different post for a different date. Today we'll just focus on author voice.

How do you go about learning to write with a unique voice? While it isn't as simple as learning to write active sentences or cut adverbs, I do think it's a skill you can hone.

First, let's talk about why you talk the way you do. I think that'll help clarify what goes into your author voice. Your word choices, phrases, and accent are a combination of a lot of things. The way your guardians talk. Your age. The part of the country you live in. Your education. It's also influenced by the way your friends talk, the books you read, the music you listen to, and the movies and TV shows you consume.

As you age, as your social circles change, and as you fall in love with different books or movies, you probably notice changes in how you talk, right? When I watched The Office all the time, I couldn't stop saying, "Absolutely." It was ingrained in me. When I was on a steady diet of Jane Austen novels, my husband would ask where I put the lotion, and I would respond, "Tis in the bathroom cabinet." I wasn't trying to sound like Miss Austen, but it was the language I had surrounded myself with.

What does this phenomenon have to do with writing? It means you can intentionally flavor your writing voice same as you can your verbal speech patterns. I think the best ways to do this for a novelist are through reading and writing:

Developing your writing voice with reading:

First of all, why reading? Why not movies or TV too? While they certainly can play a part in developing your voice, I think it's important to study great works of whatever art it is you're wanting to create. So if you're writing a screenplay, by all means, soak up some movies!

The first step for doing this is to pick great books to read. They don't have to be great in the sense of Dickens and Tolstoy and the like. I'm talking about any book where the writing makes your heart quicken. Where the word choices are perfect, the descriptions paint pictures in your mind, and the story world is vibrant.

If you're reading like a writer (and we can't help ourselves, can we?) this is going to impact how you write. It's going to push you to write better because you're exposing yourself to greatness and you'll demand the same from yourself. 

I loved this piece of advice that John Maxwell received from a friend: "Our lives are like heating a
fire poker. To get it hot, you need to put it by a fire." Reading great books and absorbing stories from master storytellers is a way of "heating up" your natural abilities.

To be clear, this isn't about copying another writer's voice. You're not trying to write like John Green/Shannon Hale/Markus Zusak. You're looking at what they've donea clever description, a creative metaphorand asking how you can do something similar. You're warming up your own fire poker, not trying to weld yourself to someone else's.

Developing your writing voice by writing with your door closed:

All writers work differently, and we all have different personality types. With that said, I'm a big believer in the benefits of writing a book with your door closed. By which I mean, your first draft is private business.

I love brainstorming with my writing friends before and as I work on a project. And once I've cleaned up my second draft, they provide tremendously helpful feedback. But I don't email them scenes or chapters as I write, nor do they ever see a first draft. (Shudder.)

One of the reasons is that if I let too many voices in, it jacks with my voice. I honed my author voice by writing in isolation for years. As lonely as I felt sometimes, I think it was really good for my craft.

In my opinion, the old writing adage is correct. The first draft you write is for you. The second draft is for others. While I certainly think through marketability and who my target reader is before I write my first draft, when I'm working I'm not thinking about what others will say. No one's going to see it. Not yet, anyway. Stripping away that fear helps me to get more honest, and honesty is critical to developing your voice.

Try it for yourself!

Grab one of your favorite books and find a passage you really like because of the language. Read it several times, breaking down the mechanics of it. What is it that you like? Why does it work?

Now, grab a piece of paper (or the manuscript you're working on) and try to write something that uses what you just learned. Tell us how it goes in the comments section!


  1. Thank you for another wonderful post!!! And I'm glad your son is doing much better :)

  2. This has been the most helpful post on a writers voice that I have read. I keep trying to figure out what exactly is a writers voice, and how do you figure out what yours is. This has help a lot! Thanks for the great post!

    1. It's a really hard topic to cover! I'm so glad it was helpful to you, Mary!

  3. Great post, thank you. I will definitely try this out with some of my favourite novels.

    I do have a question though related to voice. How does your author voice relate to the different "voices" of your characters, or is there no relation?

    1. I think that's a great question. I'm going to attempt to answer that next Monday :)

    2. Looking forward to it, thank you Stephanie.

  4. First off, that's a super sweet picture of Connor! He's really cute.

    This is a great post! My favorite reads and authors are less about the story itself and more about the voice. I really like Jenny B. Jones because she has a witty writing style.

    With the exception of my critique group, my first drafts are never shown to anyone. Anyone!! I do whatever I want with the characters and plot, even changing names and occupations mid stream. It would be far to confusing for anyone to figure out.

    1. Jenny B. Jones has an excellent writing voice. She's a great example.

  5. Thank you for this post, writing voice is one of those things hard to understand from others but I love your description! I love a good sarcastic and/or witty writing style in my reading. Gets me close to the action.

    I never show first drafts to anyone. Usually the second draft has a voice that doesn't jump all over the place. I need some time to get it smooth across the writing rather than experimenting every other page. XP

    Hope everything continues to go well with Connor! He looks like such a sweetheart.

    1. He's doing really well. Much better than I thought he would, actually. We still have some struggles to work through, but I think for his age it's going surpisingly well.

      Voice is VERY difficult to explain from a "how to" perspective. You know it when you read it, though!

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I've been struggling to see if my story had voice or not and this is the motivation I needed to start writing again!

    Thank you Mrs. Stephanie! :3

  7. This is a nice and clear explanation of a "mysterious" topic. Thanks so much for tackling it for us! I actively try to work on this sometimes, and other times I just look back to see how I've been doing with it. I think this is the main problem I'm going to have editing my book-and-sequel, because they took me a year and a half to write and my writing voice changed a lot over that time. Editing that to be consistent is proving to be very difficult without completely rewriting sections. Any advice on that?

    1. Not advice you'll like :) My advice is to completely rewrite those sections. It's really the only thing you can do when your writing ability is growing so quickly during a draft. As frustrating as it can feel during edits, it's a good thing :)

    2. Eeeeek! Please hold while I take a deep breath and shriek for a second....

      ...Okay, okay, okay. Guess there's no way around it, then. Oh dear. That'll teach me to write those first drafts faster.


  8. I'm glad Connor is doing better!

    Ah, voice. I was hoping you would do another post on this soon. It's one of the most important elements of a story, but it's also one of the hardest elements to master. Personally, I love books with a lyrical voice, and I really want to write books like that so I've been reading a lot of lyrical books. I've also tried an exercise where I copy out passages from various books, and that's helped as well.

    1. Sounds like you're already doing a lot to intentionally influence your voice! Great job, Ana :)

  9. So glad Connor is improving!
    Great post! It was great timing for me, actually. Recently I realized I've started editing out my own voice. I've been trying editing-as-I-go, since the "bad first draft" was just leaving me with unsalvageable bears and a lot of discomfort, and while my writing certainly sounds better mechanics-wise, it hardly sounds like ME anymore at all. I wasn't aware I had that much of a voice until I went back and reread an old scene and there it was.

    I guess it's because I want to sound more sophisticated than I do. The prose I naturally spew forth if I go at a pace faster than a paralyzed turtle is rambly, tends towards wordplay, and is kind of young for its vocabulary. The prose I would plunk down money for if there were a Ye Olde Voice Shoppe is lyrical, deep, and moving to my readers and.... and... utterly nonexistent, because keeping up a false voice is so headache-y I'd never finish anything, if I could make it exist at all. Usually when I think my writing is oh so mature it rereads as pretentious and stilted later.

    Yet my natural voice seems too light for the sort of stories I'm truly drawn to. *sighs* Sometimes I'm relieved I'm just a teenager and have my whole writing life ahead to work these things out.

    1. That's excellent perspective, Miri :) I understand where you are. I was really drawn to writing YA books ... but I really wanted to write "serious literature" like what I'd studied in English class. It took me a long time and a lot of frustration to embrace the type of writer I am. I heard author Liz Curtis Higgs quoted as saying, "I wanted to be deep but God gave me funny."

  10. This post is amazing! I've only started to check in here regularly, and this website is truly a gem. Writing voice is one of the things I struggle on - I really envy those writers who can pull off a good sarcastic or witty voice, or something that has their own little distinct thing going on.
    As for our speaking voice - I know exactly what you mean. After reading and rereading The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, I was saying "Yea" (The one pronounced "yay," and not "yeah.") instead of "yes." I still do, more often than not. Or "aye" or something else archaic.