Understanding voice in writing

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

A recent talk on voice by literary agent and free-lance editor Kaitlyn Johnson recalled this post. Johnston reiterated many of the points I make, calling voice an elusive concept, one that is hard to nail down and one that can’t quite be taught.

My Writing Workshop participants are often curious about what is meant by voice in literature. They noticed that when participants shared their writing, they could “hear” the author’s voice more clearly than when they read the work on their own. In this Workshopping process, we share and discuss the work in a structured and consciously developed method, which involves the author reading selections from his or her piece out loud, followed by round-robins of commentary. (The process is not a critique or attack on the writing, but rather a discussion of about what worked and what didn’t work for the readers.)

It’s during this reading out loud that Writing Workshop members hear the voice – the work seems to come alive for them.

Voice is hard to define: voice, like many terms in literature and writing, is imprecise. It is actually a metaphor, a figure of speech that makes an implied comparison between two things that are unrelated, but which share some common characteristics. In other words, a writer’s writing voice resembles his or her spoken voice, but it not the same thing.

Brian A. Klems, in a Q & A on the blog post on “The Writers Dig,” says “Voice is your own. It’s a developed way of writing that sets you apart from other writers.” He goes on to say that “[i]t’s your personality coming through on the page, by your language use and word choice.”

Indeed, an internet search will turn up the word personality in discussions of voice. Another blogger defines the term as a writer’s “distinct personality, style or point of view” (Davis). Although this last attempt approaches what is meant by voice, it also confounds things by including two terms that have their own meanings – style and point of view. Though we don’t have time to discuss these two literary terms in detail, we will touch on them.

Sometimes a writer’s voice is so distinctive that it’s possible to identify the author by merely reading a selection of their work – think Hunter S. Thompson and his “gonzo” prose. At other times, the voice may be the “neutral” one of a national news anchor, the voice of many bestselling authors.

Voice and style

In the article, “Voice in Writing,” Cris Freese cites a definition by Walter Cummins, a short story writer, a former professor, and a former editor of The Literary Review: voice consists of “sentence rhythms and patterns, word choices, enunciations, syntax, and pauses.” In addition, Cummins and Ginny Wiehardt reference a writer’s a distinct worldview or tone, the attitude “toward people and places, situations and events that emerges.” However, style, another literary element, also encompasses these aspects, such as word choice and sentence structure and arrangement, as well as the use of figurative language, which leads to commentators conflating the two terms.

Yet Klems argues that style is “much broader than voice” and he gives as an example The Writer’s Digest which “tries to have all its articles fit a similar style—conversational yet straightforward. But between the covers, each piece is written by a different author whose own voice colors his particular piece.” Authors also have a distinctive style: though both Hemingway and Faulkner were modernist writers, Jack Smith of writermag.com points out that “Hemingway’s prose is lean and stripped down, [while] Faulkner’s is intricately and richly embellished.”

Narrative voice

In discussions of voice, commentators often talk about narrative voice, which is not the same thing as voice. Another term for narrative voice is point of view, which is the perspective from which the story is told. The choices for narrative voice include first person, second person, and third person (both limited and omniscient). Some people confuse the narrative voice with the author, especially when the point of view is first-person or “I.” For instance, many readers mistake the first person narrators of many of Edgar Alan Poe’s stories for the author himself, contributing to Poe’s reputation as creepy: think of macabre stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” 

Character voice

Character voice also comes up in discussions of author voice. Writers will give their characters distinctive speech patterns and vocabulary as part of their characterization so that readers can identify them as specific people. Wiehardt refers to distinctive character voices, such as those of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield. “Highly regarded for his ability to create memorable character voices,” Dickens created one of his most famous characters who called himself “umble” (humble), repeating that adjective over and over, but he was actual nasty and scheming.

Developing your own voice

Sometimes beginning writers will admire a writer so much that they will read a lot of the works by that one author and may even consciously or unconsciously copy or mimic someone else’s voice and style. But this is fatal to the new writer because he or she may never develop or find her or his own style.

Most commentators recommend free-writing as a way to find your voice, saying that free writing will set your voice free, will even tap into your subconscious: Davis says “Your subconscious is your voice, nobody else’s,” while Freese believes that stories come from the subconscious.

Fred White, in The Daily Writer, offers an exercise for “cultivating a distinctive voice”: To help yourself uncover your natural voice, “[w]rite a page in which you describe, in a relaxed, informal manner, without groping for impressive words, how you feel about one of the front page stories appearing in this morning’s newspaper. After you finish the page, read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound like you, circle the phrases or sentences that seem artificial or forced. Then keep revising the paragraph until it seems to capture your natural voice” (30).

Working with a relatively “neutral” reporting text will give you an opportunity to find your unique voice, even though, as Freese says, “you might not even be able to explain how it came about—let alone describe what it is.” However, he goes on to say, “That’s the beauty of writing and discovering as you write.”

The important thing for writers is to keep writing, whether practicing exercises such as White’s or by practicing free-writing, to keep up that discovery process as you tap into your unconscious and creativity.

(Kaitlyn Johnson, Brian A. Klems, Laura Davis, Cris Freese, Jack Smith, Ginny Wiehardt, Fred White, The Daily Writer.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *