You know within a few notes if you’re listening to the Beatles or the Bee Gees, James Taylor or Justin Timberlake, Sting or Cher.
Well, it’s their voice. You recognize their voice.
In literature, it may not seem as obvious, since we aren’t usually hearing the author’s voice when we read their work. And yet, I’ll bet you could read a few lines of someone’s work and tell me if it’s:
- William Faulkner or Wendell Berry
- Barbara Kingsolver or Stephen King
- Tom Wolfe or Virginia Woolf
Once again, it’s their voice. You recognize their voice.
You’d know if you were reading something by Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Ann Voskamp or…Ann Kroeker.
Even if you didn’t know them before, if I put passages from Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott side by side, you’d be able to detect a difference. A big difference.
Some of it would be due to the content. Some of it would be due to stylistic choices each of them makes, like word choice, sentence length, literary devices, allusions. Each writer brings to their work different memories, opinions, and passions. That and more plays into the words we write and the way we write them.
Somehow it all comes together into something we label “voice.”
What Is Your Writing Voice?
Agents and publishers say they’re looking for a unique voice, a new voice, a fresh voice, a genuine voice, a voice that rings true.
We writers want to have a voice like that. We want to know we’ve found our voice and we want to deliver our work in that one-of-a-kind voice that connects with readers and stands out in a crowded market. We’re all trying to land on that special “something.”
What is this mysterious thing called “voice”?
The answer is often vague and subjective, sometimes as unhelpful as “I know it when I see it.”
This answer—and it’s not uncommon—leaves writers anxious and unsure of themselves. They get self-conscious and start to question, “Is this my voice? Or did I sound more ‘me’ in the last project?”
And if they continue to squirm as they work, worried they sound like someone else or like anyone else, they’re at risk of losing the authentic voice that may already be pouring out of them naturally.
Definition of Writing Voice
I poked around in books and online and discovered that a few people venture a definition of voice.
Education Northwest, the organization that developed the 6+1 Traits, describe voice as “the heart and soul of the writing, the magic, the wit, the feeling, the life and breath.”1 A reader, they say, should identify something individual, something unique from “all other writers.”2
Okay, sounds good. That’s what we’re aiming for: individual, unique, a little heart and soul and, if possible, wit.
But how does the writer find that? How does the writer pull that off? How do we know our paragraphs aren’t pulsing with copycat wit? And how can we get some of that magic?
Develop an Ear for Voice in Writing
While it’s hard to be objective about the individuality of our own writing voice, it’s easier to listen for voice in others. In Writing with Power, Peter Elbow describes a time he assigned autobiographical writing to his students and as he read their work, he paid attention to what held his attention.
Over time, he identified those sections, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and fragments as writing that “felt real.”3
He said, “[I]t had a kind of resonance, it somehow rang true.”4 He sensed power in their words. This power, he decided, was voice.
“On some days,” he writes, “these passages jumped out at me very clearly: it’s as though I could hear a gear being engaged and disengaged.”5
Your Writing Voice Is Power
Elbow began to recognize feelings these writers exuded in some of these sections—anything from happiness to self-pity. And yet he found it difficult to nail down a clear explanation or source of the power these writers conveyed or an objective definition of voice.6
He did, however, develop an ear for voice over time. So whatever you label it and whatever you call it and however you define it, one way or another, Elbow says it comes down to power. Other words may apply, as well, he says, “like authenticity or authority. Many people call it sincerity… I like to call this power juice.”7
What Voice Isn’t
After learning to listen for writing that has voice, or “juice,” you’ll start to notice writing that lacks voice. Juice-less prose.
Elbow says, “Writing without voice is wooden or dead because it lacks sound, rhythm, energy, and individuality.”8
Does a passage you’re reading online sound clunky? Does an essay stop abruptly? Do you re-read a sentence multiple times to figure it out? Are you falling asleep because a section sounds wooden and a page lacks life?
That’s writing that could use a little magic and energy, life and breath.
If your own writing lands with a thud on the page, don’t despair. We can learn skills and techniques to apply to our poetry and prose that create an appealing sense of rhythm and sound.
Does Writing Voice Differ from Speaking Voice?
Does that mean you’re developing a voice instead of trusting your natural voice?
Maybe. I think that’s okay.
While we may want to achieve a natural, conversational tone, the way we express thoughts on paper doesn’t—and shouldn’t, in my opinion—sound exactly the same as our speech.
After all, we interrupt ourselves when we speak. We hem and haw. We ramble. That’s natural and lively, perhaps, but I sure wouldn’t want to read an exact transcript of my actual conversations.
Writing benefits from clarity that comes as we develop ideas and express thoughts. If we work at it, our written words emerge with greater fluency and rhythm than our spoken words because we’ve taken time to craft our sentences.
I have to be careful, though.
If I try too hard to sound lyrical, for example, my work sounds forced.
If I’m so conversational my prose turns casual, I could seem sloppy.
So it’s a balance.
But I agree with Elbow that we find a writing voice that sounds like…us. If a friend reads my work, I’d like for him to look up from the page and say, “I feel like you’re talking with me over coffee.”
Adequate Writing and an Acceptable Voice
Elbow says work that reflects a writer’s real voice carries “power to make you pay attention and understand—the words go deep.”9 However, many writers stay at surface level and instead of finding their unique voice, they default to an “acceptable voice”10 expressed through “adequate writing.”11
To achieve this familiar, comfortable, safe, and “acceptable voice,” Elbow says we may have had “to push away feelings, experiences, and tones of voice that felt unacceptable. But these unacceptable elements have energy and power tied up in them that you need to tap if you want to deepen the resonance of your voice.”12
Dig Deep for Our True Writing Voice
So it’s time to dig deep and take risks—to risk exposing ourselves.
To release my voice means releasing emotions, feelings, and thoughts that I’ve maybe never allowed near the page.
If you’ve been writing with professional and emotional distance, you may need a little nudge into uncharted internal places and spaces. Return to a journal and write feely, using some of the resources and approaches I recommended in the first episode in this series.
As you write to discover your real self, your real voice emerges.
The Right to Be Heard
In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott says she would ask students why they show up and keep doing the work, especially when it was often boring, even excruciating. She says:
[O]ver and over they say in effect, ‘I will not be silenced again.’ They were good children, who often felt invisible and who saw some awful stuff. But at some point they stopped telling what they saw because when they did, they were punished. Now they want to look at their lives—at life—and they don’t want to be sent to their rooms for doing so. But it is very hard to find their own voice and it is tempting to assume someone else’s.13
Julia Cameron has worked with many people who have not been heard. “Sometimes,” she says in The Right to Write, “we do not know we have a writing voice because there has never been anyone to listen. When we begin to listen to ourselves, the inner voice grows stronger. Soon others can hear it as well.”14
Only Your Voice Can Write Your Truth
But going deeper and listening to ourselves isn’t easy.
Anne Lamott continues:
We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must…Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.
You can’t do this without discovering your true voice.15
Her students wonder why they have to do this hard, scary work of flinging open those doors and peering inside, reporting on what lurks in those unexplored spaces. She talks about the “liberation and joy” that comes from that action. She adds, “And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice.”16
We write our own truth in our own voice. Lamott says, “You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.”17
Write to Discover Your Voice
Julia Cameron may disagree with my thought that we can learn and practice writing techniques that improve the rhythm and sound of our work and in that sense we’re developing skills that affect our writing voice.
She says we need not “develop” a voice in writing because we have already have a voice. Further, she says, we already have a “unique” voice and need not work on that, either.18 We simply need to draw it out—discover it—with practice.
And of course anyone who knows Julia Cameron knows that Morning Pages is her assignment—three pages, handwritten, first thing in the morning, every single day. She truly believes we write to discover our voice every morning in the privacy of our bedrooms, before we’ve let the voices of the world wheeze, whine, and whisper in our ears, seeping into our sentences and influencing our ideas.
Peter Elbow, Anne Lamott, and Julia Cameron all suggest that our true voice will emerge and energize as we seek truth, explore it, expose it, and express it.
And as we bring those memories, fears, and struggles to the page, we may do so with deliberate, careful word choice, sentence length, literary devices, and allusions. Or we may stay as casual as we might be around the dinner table with friends. Maybe we’ll figure out how to do both.
I wish I could boil it down to a formula or a process. I wish I could come up with a clear definition. But I think it really might be part mystery and part magic, as it all comes together inside us to form our one-of-a-kind voice that connects with readers with authenticity, authority, sincerity, and power.
However you define it, I do think most everyone would agree that the only way to discover your voice, is to write.
- How to Be a Better Writer: Boost All 7 Traits of Great Writing [Ep 169]
- What Lies Beneath the Surface of Your Life? [Ep 174]
- Write to Discover: Start with Yourself [Ep 180]
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
- “What Are the Traits?” Education Northwest, December 2012, https://educationnorthwest.org/traits/trait-definitions.
- Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford University Press, 1998. (283)
- ibid. (284-285)
- ibid. (299)
- ibid. (301)
- ibid. (302)
- Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1995. (196)
- Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: an Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. (159-160)
- Lamott (198)
- ibid. (199)
- Cameron (154)