characters / communication / dialogue / writers resources / writing

The Problem With Voice

voice

Your voice identifies your writing

Before I discuss the problem, let me define it. Voice is what makes Winston Churchill’s words as recognizable as his face. Or Rodney Dangerfield one-liner’s his unique take on the world. You wouldn’t confuse the way Erma Brombeck talks with June Cleaver, would you? Why? It’s the words they use, their syntax, the way they present their thoughts–it’s their voice.

The problem with voice is it has two layers.

First, it has to do with your characters. A reader should recognize your characters by the way they speak their dialogue, think their interior monologues, solve their problems, act in scenes. These are unique to a person, not formulaic. Think about your friends. Put them in a conversation with a fictional detective. One might focus on the fear of an authority figure questioning them. Another might wonder if the man is single. Those focuses would come out in how they act and speak.

That’s their voice and no one should sound like any one else in your novel. For novice writers,  you need dialogue tags to tell who’s talking. Not so with the pros. The antagonist should fiddle with her hair as she speaks. The protagonist might speak formally, carefully precisely, never using contractions. Another character might sway side-to-side. Those differences between speaking styles are what often escapes even experienced writers. To develop the character’s voice, you must get inside their head every time it’s their scene. As a fellow writer once told me, “The cost of rushing through this step is, your character is either unbelievable, unlikable, or both.”

Second, voice has to do with you as writer. Here’s what some of the top names in the publishing industry say about a writer’s voice:

A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart says, “…voice is the writer’s personal style coming through in the writing. It’s as complex and varied as human personality itself.”

Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman says, “One precious quality int he best authors, which I believe is largely innate but is sometimes slowly acquired over time, is what editors and critics call ‘a voice’. The line-by-line writing of J.D. Salinger doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Stephen King …has a sublime gift for the cadences and nuances of small-town American idiomatic speech…”

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas says, “A true breakout is… a breakthrough to a more profound individual expression. It demands that an author reach deep inside to find what is truthful, original, important and inspiring in his own world view. It requires that the author be true to his own ‘voice’.”

How do you develop your voice as a writer? Ben Yagoda calls it the “sound on the page”.

How do you release that inner muse that allows you to be unique on the page?


Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and four ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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11 thoughts on “The Problem With Voice

  1. You have a voice. So is the problem the overdeveloped or under established voice. It feels that some of us writers twiddle away at voice so much it’s forced while others try so hard not to tweak that it can feel chaotic. Where then is the solution?

    • Writer’s voice is similar to an individual’s personality. As you Wanda get older, you become comfortable with who you are and how to be that person comfortably. Same with a writer. We have to know what our personality, exemplified by voice, is so we are appealing as a unique story-teller. ‘Forced’ doesn’t work. It’s like a ‘fake’ friend who you can’t trust.

  2. The writer’s voice. I remember my attempts at teaching this concept. I would have students write about a particular topic anonymously. I’d display them on a bulletin board and ask students to guess the authors. If they matched the author to the paper, that meant the author had a recognizable voice.

  3. The idea of writers voice, in particular my writers voice, took a bit of getting my head around. Mine only really started to develop when my confidence as a writer grew, when I stopped worrying if I was saying things correctly and just said them instead.

  4. A little while ago I went through a book that I liked with different coloured highlighters, picking out the various voices and after a few pages I could pick who was speaking with out a tag. It’s a real talent to get that specific voice right.

    • That’s a clever idea. I used to teach dance and I’d tell my students that if they were in a sound proof bubble and the audience couldn’t hear the music, they should know what was being danced (fox trot, tango, waltz, etc) by the body language (rise and fall for waltz, drama for tango, smoothness for fox trot, etc).

      That’s voice.

  5. Any thoughts on what voice to use when writing non-fiction ? Should it usually/ always be the writer’s own real-life voice ?

    • Hi Sanjeev

      Non-fic requires a voice that fits the topic. Likely, it is your own unique voice, one that attracts people to your telling of the topic, beit instructional, history, or whatever it is your non-fic covers. I’ve written about 15 non-fic books (tech ed) and make a point of saying things in my voice rather than some preconceived idea of what fits the topic. Seems to work for me!

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