Saturday, August 7, 2010

How writers found their voice: real examples

8/11 update - TH Mafi just posted on voice! I knew she felt my desperate call at some deep inner level. Or perhaps she just graciously heeded my recent question in a comment about how she found her marvelous voice.

I've been collecting any articles I find on voice because of all the aspects of writing craft, this one is the most mysterious to me. I also struggle with the difference between writer's voice vs. character's voice. Writer's voice makes more sense to me with non-fiction; in fiction, your main characters' voices should be more of the focus, right (unless you are writing in the omniscient point of view, which is apparently out of style these days, unless you're Grisham, maybe). Is your writer's voice crucial to pulling off realistic character voices, too?

Here's an excerpt from the most recent article on writer's voice I've run across, from agent Rachelle Gardner's What is writer's voice?:
Your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.... It's a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you're-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self.
Rachelle asked "what are some ways you find your unique writer's voice?" From the comments, I found some patterns pop out with the methods that people use. Here's what I learned. I hope it's okay to reprint some of the comments (attributed, of course) and to give them my own labels!

The brute force method:
Finding your voice is a lot...(a LOT) of really, really, really bad free-writing and first drafts. (Kellye Parish)
Write. Everyday, all the time. Write about the weather, the funny man on the corner, your boss. Write about that idea where people's heads turn into eggplants. Write articles, diaries, fiction, poetry. (Mesmerix)

The "go back to your roots" method:
When I reach back to the unique events that defined me, my voice comes roaring back. Because I'm already so familiar with what happened, I can use this writing to push my voice to the forefront. This allows me to go back to work with my voice all warmed up. (Ida M. Olson)

The "love that feeling" method:
As my husband or critique partner read my manuscript, I notice when they love certain chapters or sections of the story and when they don't love certain sections as much. And when I go back through those sections, I realize that those chapters sound like... well, me. This goes for blogging as well. I think the blog posts that are an honest portrayal of me and my passions, I hear my own voice. The trick, now, is to make sure that passion and self comes out in everything I write not just certain sections of it. (Heather Sunseri)

I know that I have found my voice when I re-read what I have written and it makes me laugh, cry, or feel some sort of emotion. (Teenage Bride)

The "experimental" method:
One thing that helped me find the voice I didn't know I had was writing in a different tense. When I switched to present tense, what a difference! For other writers, it might be a change of genre that brings out their voice. I think it might be like using a different filter in photography. Sometimes the one you use the least can make the colors pop. (Debbie Maxwell Allen)

The "find your vision/view" method:
Voice... is about two things: your vision of the world (that is, what's outside of you), and your ability to communicate that vision in language. You can find your vision of the world by doing a lot of writing, even more reading--and by thinking about how you see things. (Barbara Baig)

If we describe our mind's view in words, then we have found our voice. (David Amburgey)

The "non-conformist" method:
We all have a somewhat unique voice, but for it to be unique enough to stand out comes from the attitude of the author. If you want a unique voice you’ve got to blow everyone else off and be a nonconformist. (Timothy Fish)

Here's a bunch of other articles on voice I've collected over the past few months.

the Write Power: Finding your voice Helpful variations of the ones described above.

Livia Blackburne: Voice finding techniques. More suggestions.

Janice Hardy (Storyflip): some simple help for voice. This one helps you strengthen voice while you are editing.

Chip MacGregor: Finding your writing voice. Suggests imitating others to start with (though most will tell you NOT to do this!)

Men with Pens: Finding your writing voice. Includes nine different exercises to try! I'm slowly working my way through them.

Nathan Bransford: How to craft great voice. In response to one of the comments, Nathan also gives good advice on how you know WHEN you've found your voice: "I think voice is there when it's adjustable. Can you dial up or down certain elements? Can you hear it in your head? In other words, is it enough of an entity that you can think of it apart from the elements it's describing?"

So now that I've regurgitated all sorts of information I've discovered, here's my one teeny tiny experience with searching for voice that actually resulted in success.


Go back and read the stuff you never intended for anyone to read. The parts where I'm venting about something are the best, and likewise when my character is venting about something that's when I get the strongest voice.

Ha ha, not sure what that says about me as a person? Never mind. In my next blog, I'm going to VENT!

And if that doesn't work, I'm going to over-caffeinate myself into hyperactivity and then strap myself to my chair and see what happens if there is a keyboard close enough to reach. I like to think that's how T.H. Mafi developed her voice.

Planning to post more on character voice soon. In the meantime, if you've made it this far through my writing voice voyage, I plead with you, I BEG of you, if you have any opinions on voice (the written kind), please share them with me!


  1. I think the act of writing is what helps me find my voice. It's not something that just happens, we need to write a lot to find it :)

  2. I found twenty cups of strong coffee a day DID do something for MY writing voice.

    I think it got an octave higher.

    Regards, Mac

  3. Wonderful! Voice is so deliberate and can be oh so difficult.

  4. Gosh, there's quite a lot here to digest! Thank you for a thoughtful piece on literary voice. I always found writing in first person narrative the easiest - and for a while it was the best way for me to start a story. I think moving to third person narrative for me was a gradual learning process because I had to then step out of myself and into minds some of which were alien to me! But I found that as the story progressed first person narrative wasn't enough and so branching out so to speak into other voices was a necessity.

    I think writers have many many many voices and need to listen to them!

    Take care

  5. A superb post. What a lot of great information and links! Thank you.

  6. I've been thinking about my 'voice' lately, and whether I've found it yet. Sometimes I feel I'm getting close, and the stories that do best for me are always the ones I wrote purely 'as myself', rather than trying to impress or please someone else.

    I heard an interesting interview today which I want to mention on my blog, which is partly related to the subject of voice. I'd really like to give this post a mention too if that's Ok with you Margo.

  7. I think I wondered/worried about finding my "voice" a couple years ago. Even tried did a manuscript in first person to see if it made any difference in my writing.

    Result? I gave up looking for my voice. I'd either stare at my navel and not get anything written. Or, I'd write and not care. Writing is more interesting.

  8. This is an excellent post Margo. Thanks for the links! ;)

    For me, I tend to write in 1st person POV so my character voices vary for each novel. One thing that helps me during the pre-planning stage is to keep a notebook and write in that character's voice for a period of time. I usually write about what's going on in front of me going through life during this time period -- but write it from that character's voice.

    It can be kind of schizo but it works for me!

  9. Voice is so challenging to come by, but easily identified once you've nailed it yourself or when you read it in other authors' writing. The only way I find my voice is through my characters. They are the key for me.

  10. Voice in writing is very important to me...but I don't think of it in terms of finding my voice as a writer. Instead, when I begin a new project, I must discover the voice that the story wants to be told in. This doesn't mean POV necessarily. It means playing around with the idea until the words begin to flow in a genuine way. That is when I start "hearing" the voice of the story. Once I can hear it, then the writing of it is a teensy bit easier.


  11. I think maybe you are over thinking it! Your writer's voice is natural, and you use it even here when you blog.

    For example, I have been reading Kiersten White's blog for a long time. Yesterday I read her book Paranormalcy, and I noticed a lot of the phrases and way she words things on her blog also pop up in the book.

    So I think our voice often just happens naturally when we write, and the more we do it, the more refined it gets.

  12. This was the best post ever I've read about voice! I think we need to know about it and find our own or we will never ever be that writer that is crying to come out of us! Thanks!

  13. Margo, I posted that piece today with a link to here. x

  14. This is one of the best posts I've read on voice. You covered it all and though it still is a hard thing for me to find, I'm getting there.

  15. Sweet! Thanks for all the responses. Did y'all see Karen's advice in her comment? That's a great idea for developing character voice and I am going to start that character journaling method. But it's also good to hear the range of responses. It's great to get tips from other writers but ultimately we are artists and in order to be unique we have to have our unique way of doing things!

  16. Great collection of resources. I'm of the school of thought that an author's voice is something that evolves over time. It's not something we create, so much as something we hone. Character voice, on the other hand, is more easily manipulated and changes from story to story.

  17. Great post! Voice does seem to be the hardest thing to explain. For me, my voice is how I use language to express my ideas and thoughts. I wrote a humorous story. And then I wrote a darker story. One girl and one male character, so they don't sound exactly alike but I do believe my style is there, which for me, means voice. And I think it develops over time. Maybe when we try and force it - that's when it doesn't work? A lot to think about.

  18. Great post, Margo! Voice is something I've been struggling to understand. I like Heather Sunseri's comment about her voice coming out when she's passionate about her writing. Sometimes the words just seem to flow all by themselves when I feel strongly about something. I'm guessing those are the times when my voice is coming through the clearest.

  19. You've got a lot of great info here. Did you tweet it? So Tweet Worthy! Thanks for sharing. :)

  20. Comprehensive post on a tricky subject! Nice!

    I just saw your comment on my blog about Egyptian historical fiction. Michelle Moran has a couple that came out recently- Nefertiti and Heretic Queen (Cleopatra's Daughter too, but that's more Roman). There's also Wilbur Smith's River God and Pauline Gedge has a whole slew of books set in Egypt. I hope to join them on the shelves soon!

    Happy writing!

  21. "Voice." It can be the most frustrating thing. There are a hundred different definitions. I've been complimented on my voice, but I still am not sure what it is. For me, it has to do with me being completely in character when I write. I use my acting background and write from their viewpoints. My characters that is. So, I guess I would recommend a few acting lessons on getting into character for anyone having trouble with it. As a consequence, btw, I find it much easier to write in first person.

  22. Great info. Will have to check out the links and digest all of it. Thanks so much!

  23. Thanks for the shout-out. I just came across it. I write at high altitude, as well--8500 feet. Sometimes when it's tough to write, I blame the lack of oxygen. : )

    -Debbie Maxwell Allen

  24. Excellent post! I will share this with my writing students.


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