What is writer’s voice? And how can you find yours?

Reading time: About 9 minutes (skimmable in 4)

Few subjects are as mysterious as the art of finding your voice. If you’re a writer struggling with that problem, here’s what I suggest you do…

What is writer’s voice? And, how can you find yours?

You’d think this should be a simple explanation but it’s the opposite of that. I’ve just spent an hour on the Internet searching to see how other writers and thinkers define voice and it’s a dog’s breakfast out there!

Probably the best description I found came from a post on the WP Engine blog, inspired by a lecture from Janice Castro, an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism. 

Castro uses an especially effective metaphor: Your voice is like a record/album/CD. It is consistent and steady and memorable. (Listeners don’t ever mix up Beyoncé with Madonna or Drake with Elton John.) Your voice will flow through everything you write and should be distinctive and recognizable.

Castro also goes on to define tone, which she explains is quite different from voice. Tone is more like individual songs. They might be: sad, upbeat, romantic or angry. They are still the songs of a specific performer but within that context they express different moods and attitudes.

Writers frequently ask me how they can find or “develop” their voice. This is a challenging question because voice seems so ineffable, and is so hard to pin down.

But let me start by saying that I don’t agree with agent Rachelle Gardener who wrote an impassioned blog post in 2010 giving her views on voice. Here is the core of her argument:

So how do you find your voice? You can’t learn it. You can’t copy it. Voice isn’t a matter of studying. You have to find it. And the only place to find it is within you. (Yikes, sounds like I’m going New Age here!)

I think she’s wrong about that (well, not about the New Age-y part.) You can develop your voice and you can work to make it better and stronger. The place to start is with understanding the kind of voice you want.

You learn that by reading others. In fact, I think this is precisely why writers will tell other aspiring writers that their main job is to become better readers.

Let’s go deeper into the topic of voice, beginning with American novelist and short story writer Richard Ford. He is best known for his novel The Sportswriter and its sequels. But the following example comes from his book, Between Them. The subtitle is Remembering My Parents and I recall particularly enjoying the second section, which focused on his mother. This brief excerpt is from that section:

Does one ever have a relationship with one’s mother? I think not. We — my mother and I — were never bound together by much that was typical, not typical duty, regret, guilt, embarrassment, etiquette. Love, which is never typical, sheltered everything. We expected it to be reliable, and it was. We were always ready to say “I love you,” as if a time would come when she would want to hear that, or I would, or that each of us would want to hear ourselves say it to the other, only for some reason — as certainly happened — that would not be possible.

My mother and I look alike. Full, high forehead. Same chin, same nose. There are pictures to show it. In myself I see her, hear her laugh in mine. In her life there was no particular brilliance, no celebrity. No heroics. No one, crowning achievement to swell the heart. There were bad things enough: a childhood that did not bear strict remembering; a husband she loved forever and lost; a life to follow that did not require much comment. But somehow she made possible for me my truest affections, as an act of great literature bestows upon its devoted reader. And I have known that moment with her we would all like to know, the moment of saying, yes. This is what it is. An act of knowing that confirms life’s finality and truest worth. I have known that. I have known any number of such moments with her, knowing them at the instant they occurred, and at this moment as well. I will, I assume, know them forever.

What can I say about Richard Ford’s voice? Here are my observations:

  • He really nails the landing of the short sentence. In the passage above, there are a number of four- and five-word sentences.
  • More important than that, however, he uses a lot of sentence fragments, presented as sentences. For example: Full, high forehead. The subject and the verb are both understood to mean, “we both have.” Ditto for “same chin, same nose.” Ditto for “no heroics.” Note that not every writer can get away with this style! In the hands of less masterful writers it might even seem simply lazy.
  • He is self-consciously abstract, in this passage, which is different from his other books. While he talks about his appearance as well as his mother’s, most of the passage focuses on abstract ideas – like love, duty and regret. This is a key part of style and, for me, perhaps is the reason why I didn’t like this book as much as I’d hoped. I usually prefer text that is concrete to abstract.

Now, let’s move to a piece written by a Manhattan-based Buddhist monk named Soken. Let me begin by quoting from a piece he wrote for the website The Millions. The headline was: “Leonard Cohen and Zen.”

I met Leonard Cohen—then a Zen monk—on a dirt road in the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles at the edge of the Mojave Desert. From the main road to the Master’s quarters was a gravelly avenue, dusty in the summer, shaded in parts by 100-year-old sugar pines that leaned high, toward each other, and seemed to whisper amongst themselves. Manzanita shrubs scaled the gentle climb of the mountain above and below the rocky drive. And occasionally a pickup truck or SUV would zip through the narrow way, driven by an ardent monk with an important sense of purpose: to, say, deliver asphalt shingles from Home Depot so that we could hammer them without delay to the hot tar-papered roof of the meditation hall, which we called by its Japanese name, the zendo.

At the top of the road, I was walking with Andy, a bedraggled, long-haired, bearded, red-headed fellow initiate—more of a comrade than a friend—who ran about the Zen Center in the manner of his Chinese astrology sign, explosively, like a rabbit. I felt a car approaching and tensed. But quite unusually, the car slowed to a roll that met our walking pace. The engine quieted, and almost stopped. My body began to relax.

Making its way past us, the Nissan Pathfinder’s window came down. The driver revealed his face, and spoke in a tired, dulcet voice, “Excuse me, friends.” It was Leonard. And then he pulled forward, leaving the gravel, dirt, and pedestrians unperturbed.

I find Soken’s voice exceptionally distinctive.  Why? A couple of points, I think:

  • He often uses very long sentences in a way I don’t find objectionable, and, in fact, admire. This is unusual for me because as you may know, I’m usually a huge believer that the ideal sentence range is 14 to 18 words.  But I also understand that rules are also made to be broken — if you know what you’re doing. Soken does. That sentence in the first paragraph beginning with the phrase “And occasionally…” is 58 words. Then notice Soken’s five-word sentence, “My body began to relax.” The juxtaposition of long sentences followed by very short ones is what makes long sentences work.
  • He uses lots of figurative language, particularly personification. Notice how the sugar pines whisper to each other and shrubs scale a mountain.
  • He has a great sense of humour. I love the line about Andy, who ran about the Zen Center in the manner of his Chinese astrology sign, explosively, like a rabbit.

Now we can consider a third “voice,” belonging to the American non-fiction writer Anne Lamott. She is best known for her manual for writers Bird by Bird,  which is the source of this excerpt:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you tried deliberately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground — you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.

What can I say about Anne Lamott’s voice?

  • When compared with Richard Ford, Anne Lamott is wonderfully concrete. Notice she describes clutter. I particularly like her phrase “you can still discover new treasures under all those piles…”
  • Notice how she tends toward overstatement: “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” She even argues clutter will make you insane, surely an overstatement — but this habit of overstatement is essential to her voice.
  • Finally, consider her sense of humour: I especially like her phrase “These are the words we are allowed to use in California” but notice how this is about more than humour. It’s also revealing. She is willing to talk about herself. Not all writers are willing to do that and it’s a key part of her voice.

The fourth voice I’m going to mention belongs to the great Canadian novelist Alice Munro. This excerpt is from her short story, “The View From Castle Rock” contained in her book of the same name. (You can also read it on the New Yorker website, if you like.)

On a visit to Edinburgh with his father when he is nine or ten years old, Andrew finds himself climbing the damp, uneven stone steps of the Castle. His father is in front of him, some other men behind—it’s a wonder how many friends his father has found, standing in cubbyholes where there are bottles set on planks, in the High Street—until at last they crawl out on a shelf of rock, from which the land falls steeply away. It has just stopped raining, the sun is shining on a silvery stretch of water far ahead of them, and beyond that is a pale green and grayish-blue land, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.

Many theses and dissertations have been written about Alice Munro so I’m not going to pretend my observations are anything other than superficial, but I think this passage reveals something of Munro’s voice and style.

  • She uses a very simple vocabulary: bottles, planks, mist, rock. These are all basic Anglo-Saxon words.
  • She uses a lot of pretty dull verbs — many state-of-being verbs such as is, was, did, had been, were. I think this is deliberate. To me, it lends a certain specific rhythm to her writing.
  • She attends to a great level of detail — to me, her attention seems almost microscopic. An entire paragraph on a 10-year-old boy’s experience of rain in Edinburgh.

Finally, the last voice I’ll examine, belongs to Malcolm Gladwell, from his book The Tipping Point. I’ve long felt that I’d be able to identify a Gladwell piece if I were blindfolded. There’s something about the rhythm of his writing I find especially characteristic:

For Hush Puppies — a classic American brushed-suede shoes with light weight crêpe sole — the tipping point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets in small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives — Owen Baxter and Jeffrey Lewis – ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan.

Here’s what Gladwell does that’s distinctive:

  • He uses many exceptionally short sentences. In the paragraph above, his average sentence length is 16.57 which is already pretty short. But if you look at the individual length of each sentence, here is how they add up: 24, 10, 16, 18, 4, 40. Notice how the one 40-word sentence tilts his average upward from what would otherwise be much lower.
  • He begins his entire book (for this is the very first paragraph) with a preposition, “for.” This makes the pacing of the sentence, the paragraph and indeed the book seem more urgent and interesting.
  • He is patient with “explaining.” Sentence 2 and sentence 5 almost take the reader by the hand and guide them through the story. This, I think is Gladwell’s strongest asset.

Let me also add that while I admire Gladwell’s writing style, I’m no longer a huge fan of his work. I find his science to be sloppy, a view that is shared by others 

If you are looking to develop your voice, I suggest you find an author whose style you admire and start to copy them. Yes, I mean word-for-word copying. I call this becoming a copy cat. There is so much about voice that ends up being automatic and if you want to change your voice you need to absorb it and really get it into your own system. Don’t worry that copying a writer you admire will keep you from developing your own voice. The voice will naturally become yours, with more practice. Copying will help you import the style and syntax of another writer, while you, in turn, add your own experience and preferences to it.

I suggest starting with copying for just five minutes a day. Any more than that is likely to make the job feel too burdensome. Then, when you’ve finished copying a piece or a chapter, reread it looking specifically for the kinds of issues I’ve mentioned above. These include:

  • Vocabulary
  • Sentence length
  • Concrete vs abstract language
  • Repetition
  • Sentence fragments
  • Verbs (especially state-of-being verbs)
  • Humour
  • Overstatement
  • Figurative language 

I believe we all get our voices from the same place — a rich amalgam of genes from our parents, instruction from our teachers, books we have read, and our own efforts at writing improvement.

If you want to develop or enhance your writing voice, you can. It just takes work.

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If you want to develop your writing voice, consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’m holding a no-charge webinar on Friday July 19 to introduce you to the principles I promote in the program. Join by emailing me.  To learn more about the program,  go here and if you want to apply, scroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help writers make their work less prosaic. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How have you developed your voice?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!