Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about voice.
“Oh, I love this book, it’s so voice-y!”
“The agent rejected my manuscript because they couldn’t connect to the character’s voice”.
“Every character had the same voice. I couldn’t tell them apart.”
So how exactly do you define a story or character’s voice? What do people mean when they say a writer lacks voice or writes in a really voice-y way?
Voice was something I struggled with for a long time (and still do). You can learn good grammar (I’ve yet to), you can get to know genres and querying techniques pretty easily, but voice is something trickier altogether to get to grips with. There’s always a way, however!
So what exactly is a writer’s ‘voice’?
Some say that a writer’s voice is as unique to them as their fingerprint.
Our perceptions of the world are all unique, so it makes sense that we would relay that perception to the world in our own way.
When I think about writer voice, I see it as:
50% subconscious (the small voice you’ve had since you were a baby that was shaped by your genetics, family, background, status and formulative influences).
30% technique that you’ve picked up (and will continue to pick up) from:
- Other writers
- Feedback from betareaders, mentors and readers
- Books you read
- TV and movies you watch
- Regular journalling
- Interactions you have and see in real life
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – 20% of your writing voice comes from how well you can relate to the world around you.
This portion of your voice depends highly on your ability to emphasise with others. If you’re unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, then you’re really going to struggle to write authentically. The reader needs to believe that your story, world and characters exist. They won’t believe unless you do.
A writer’s voice is something that develops over time. If you try to rush the process, it’ll show in your work as clumsy prose and imitation of other writers.
The key to finding your unique, flavoursome, gorgeous voice is to listen to and celebrate your own experiences. THAT is what makes your writing unique. THAT is what will make the right readers fall in love with your writing. Everything else such as character development, sentence structure and imagery can be learned along the way.
Find your own voice first
Opinions differ on what makes a ‘good writer’, but I tend to gravitate to those that write with a certain rawness.
I like to believe that the writer or their protagonist is sitting across the table from me as they relay their story. I’ve invited them over to my house for a cup of tea, and they’re not leaving until they open up and tell me everything (because best hostess ever. see also:not crazy). I like to feel a certain intimacy with the writer and the world and people they’ve created.
Keeping a daily journal is a fantastic way to connect with your own voice. Set an alarm 15 minutes before your current waking up time, and just write whatever pops into your head without judgement. Many successful authors have found their writing voice this way, as well as ideas for novels!
If journalling isn’t your thing, there are some simple writing exercises you can try.
Jeff Goins is one of my favourite writers. His passion lies in helping other writers earn money through their craft while also enjoying multi-layered, happy lives.
In his 10 Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice blogpost, Jeff recommends that you:
- Describe yourself in three adjectives (e.g. warm, cheeky, extroverted). The first three words that come to mind are likely to describe your own writing voice.
- Ask your friends and family to describe you as a person (and don’t be offended if you don’t like the answer!)
- Think about the last five books that you really enjoyed reading. It’s possible that they in some way represent your writing style. Which brings me neatly on to my next point…
Read, read and read some more
One way to figure out your own voice is to read A LOT of stuff and think about what you connected with the most.
Do you find yourself gravitating towards one writing style over another? Chances are that you’ll find the ‘building blocks’ for your own writing voice in more of that writer’s work. You get to see how their characters interact, what gestures they use alongside their dialogue, and how the pacing moves through a conversation.
“But, Rachel,” I hear you wail. “Isn’t that stealing?”.
No, it’s not. When you read, you’re mentally ingesting the words and feeling out how they ‘sound’ when you speak or think them. You’re probably familiar with the opposite feeling you get when you reading something jarring – that’s because it’s written in a voice that doesn’t resonate with your own.
Just like how a child learns to speak by mimicking the speech of surrounding family members, a writer hones their voice by studying other writers. This process never really ends, by the way, so don’t worry if you’re years (or decades) into your craft and find that your writing style changes and shifts over time. That can often be a good thing!
“Yeah but I don’t have time to read”-
Er, yes you do. Everyone has time to read if they make it a priority. If you want to get serious about this writing lark, you better be making room for reading in your life. It’s just like Stephen King said in his fantastic autobiography/writing how-to book (funnily called ‘On Writing’)
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time, or the tools, to write.
Simple as that.”
Listen to real-life conversations
When I was a kid, I would always get into trouble for listening in on conversations between the adults. I liked when I caught two adults having a really heated conversation or gossiping about a neighbour or relative. I would watch their body language, how they would chew over certain words, what their hands did. When one adult spoke, I would watch the other for their reactions. I was a weird kid, if this wasn’t already apparent.
Anyway, my point is, if you want examples of organic conversation that feels believable, nothing can beat real life.
Next time you’re on the bus, in a cafe, doing your shopping, just keep an ear out for the conversations going on all around you. Compare the speed of one person’s dialogue to another. Think about the tone, the inflections, the pauses they take and how the rhythm can often shift and waver depending on what they’re talking about.
If you don’t fancy the idea of gegging in on stranger’s conversations, you can still get the same effect by listening to radio plays, going to the theatre or simply taking a bit more notice to how your friends and family talk to you and one another.
So fret not, my lovely scribes. You will find your own unique, beautiful voice in time, if you haven’t already. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite 80s ballads for now, and wish you endless fortune in your writing journey.