Writing Voice: 6 Things You Need to Know to Improve It
Writing a book isn’t just a discovery of the story, it’s also a discovery of yourself. Who are you, really? The answers you find appearing on the screen with each word you type can be surprising. And nowhere is the truth about an author revealed more unequivocally than when you open your literary mouth, loosen your metaphorical vocal cords, and . . . sing. The writing voice that emerges is a raw, honest assessment of you.
In part, this is why the topic of the writing voice is initially a scary one. We all have to have a voice, and, more than that, it has to be amazing.
But… how are you supposed to gain this amazing but decidedly slippery writing voice?
It’s all a bit vague. Just . . . be you. Just . . . be awesome.
And that’s where much of the rawness of spilling pieces of yourself onto the page, word by word by word, can become daunting.
6 Facts to Help You Understand Your Writing Voice
Today, I want to talk about six of the most important principles of the writing voice—both to demystify it a bit and to provide you some solid ideas for moving forward in giving readers a powerfully authentic experience of your stories.
1. Your Writing Voice Is to Your Prose What Your Theme Is to Your Story
Every book is comprised of two very different, but equally important aspects: story and execution. For a book to work, both must be brilliant. You can have an excellent story, but if you fail to bring it vividly to life in your writing, in a way that allows readers to experience it, then it’s
kinda like that that tree falling in the woods where no one can actually hear it.
I talk a lot on this site about the importance of theme to story. Indeed, ultimately, story is theme. Theme is the beating heart of all narrative experiences and the determining factor in whether or not readers will emotionally relate to what you’ve created.
What theme is to story, voice is to writing. Voice is the secret “it” factor that takes serviceable but forgettable narrative writing and launches it into the stratosphere. It is what brings stories to life.
In an interview in The Writer (March 2017), Alaska Quarterly Review editor Ronald Spatz emphasized:
…it is generally not plot that ultimately hooks us but rather the voice of the piece. The voice must be strong and idiosyncratic enough to create a unique persona and drive the piece forward.
In short, a strong writing voice is integral to a strong book. Just as you seek strong themes for your stories, you must just as assiduously seek a strong voice for executing that story.
2. Your Voice Should Celebrate Your Imperfections
Okay, strong writing voice. Got it. But… what is that exactly?
Naturally, there are many factors, but if we had to boil a good writing voice down to one core element, the one I would choose would be: imperfection.
As Spatz says above, a good writing voice is “idiosyncratic.” It is unusual, unique, personal.
A good writing voice is representative of humanity: decidedly imperfect, but deliciously fascinating and possibly even lovable not just in spite of the flaws but because of them.
Which of the following is more interesting?
The straightforward, properly parsed:
My father warned me I would be punished if I hit someone again. He informed me I was now too old to behave so badly.
Or Scout Finch’s slangy frankness in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more; I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be.
None of us speaks perfectly. We all have pet phrases, tics, favored slang, mispronounced words, emotion-driven fragments and run-ons. From all these things, our personality emerges vividly to those around us. The same is true in our writing: the limitless possibilities of imperfect language allow us to reveal to our readers our own personalities and, by extension, the personality of our stories and our characters.
3. Your Writing Voice Should Be an Honest Representation of You
Although your voice in each new story will be influenced by the specifics of that story, it will always be your voice. You’re the one bleeding onto the page. Readers may think they come for your lovable characters, but really they come for you. They come for your honesty, for your unique insights into the world, for the unique colors of your personality. They come for your joy and for your pain.
If you can’t give them that, stop writing right now.
It’s not always easy, of course. For the same reason you sometimes censor your words and even disguise parts of your true self when trying to make a good impression on certain people, you can also hesitate to allow yourself to feel too exposed in letting your personality rip on the page. Creating a writing voice that is silly, strident, anxious, brutal, idealistic, or anything less than perfect will reveal truths about yourself.
You’re very likely to discover a few things about yourself that even you weren’t fully conscious of. Sometimes you might be a little ashamed of what you find. Or sometimes you may realize what you’re exposing on the page is simply a deeply private part of yourself. Either way, creating an honest writing voice can sometimes be a very vulnerable experience.
But this very vulnerability is what gives your voice authenticity, interest, and power. Let ‘er rip. Write scared.
4. Your Writing Voice Must Be an Honest Representation of Your Characters
Authorial voice and character voice are not the same thing. Although your authorial voice will inevitably color everything you write, you will also need to adjust it to properly represent the varied characters you are bringing to life for your readers.
The personalities of certain characters will lend themselves more easily to lively narrative voices. This should always be a consideration when choosing narrators. But you must also take into account the setting that has shaped your characters, as well as the times in which they live.
For example, although all my stories inescapably bear the imprint of my voice, the narrative voice for my 1920s Nebraska barnstorming novel Storming was necessarily much different from my 1820s London superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer:
Flying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D, meant being ready for anything. But in Hitch’s thirteen years of experience, this was the first time “anything” had meant bodies falling out of the night sky smack in front of his plane.
True enough that flying and falling just kind of went together. Not in a good sort of way, but in a way you couldn’t escape. Airplanes fell out of the clouds, and pilots fell out of their airplanes. Not on purpose, of course, but it did happen sometimes, like when some dumb palooka forgot to buckle his safety belt, then decided to try flying upside down.
Flying and falling, freedom and dependence, air and earth. That was just the way it was. But whatever was falling always had to be falling from some place. No such thing as just falling out of the sky, ’cause nothing was up there to fall out of.
Which didn’t at all explain the blur of plummeting shadows just a couple hundred yards in front of his propeller.
Around Affery, in the north of Surrey, hamlet folk cherished the plague.
Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.
That was why he ran, head up, arms pumping, directly towards the source of it.
After last month’s barley harvest, the fields lay in barren contentment, even with his feet flinging soil clods. The sun burnt through the crisp autumn breeze and heated his face. He was belated, and considering what awaited him, that was far worse than any fabled plague.
He reached the stile in the midst of the tumbled stone wall. In one stride, he leapt the three steps. Another stride took him as easily down the other side.
Or rather, the second stride would have been as easy—save for the face that distracted him from the corner of his eye.
5. Your Writing Voice Is Something You Create
A common question among writers is, “Where do I get a writing voice?”
Voice is a culmination of every word you write. As you strengthen your craft in every aspect of prose—from grammar to showing vs. telling—you will be refining your voice.
But voice is also something you can approach deliberately. Indeed, you should approach it deliberately.
- How do you want your stories to sound?
- What personality and tone do you want to infuse them with?
- What word choices can you look for that will inject life and interest into what you’re creating?
- Who are some authors whose style you particularly admire and resonate with?
Set time aside to just throw words onto the page. Play around with your characters’ voices. Strive to evoke the differing personalities of each different person in your book. Write things you know no one will ever read, and give yourself permission to be wild on the page. Take your vocal idiosyncrasies too far and see what you can learn out there on the edge of civilization and what lessons you can then bring back to your actual book.
6. Your Writing Voice Is Something You Discover
It’s true your writing voice is inevitably something you can create—to the degree that you are aware of it. But you can’t fake that awareness. You have to slowly discover it and refine your understanding of it as it emerges.
You can’t manufacture an excellent writing voice any more than you can mimic Helen Mirren’s accent and pretend you’re British. The only person you can authentically be is you. And yet, who you are is an ongoing discovery.
The same is true of your writing voice. It will emerge and evolve just as you do as a person. You can’t force that. You can only be attentive to it and ready to take full advantage of it. As award-winning short-story writer Brent van Staalduinen said in his March 2017 interview with The Writer: