By Chris Bailey

I remember a moment in a coffee shop when my critique partner wailed, “I can’t find my voice.”

“Just focus on the writing,” I said. “Your voice will find you.”

Sage advice. I totally believed I was right until a contest judge shook my confidence by noting on my score sheet, “The voice isn’t strong enough.”

After a day or two of the usual post-feedback self-talk—OMG! WTF? IDTS!—I realized my personal inconvenient truth. I had only a vague idea of what voice means.

Hearing voices

I know I have the ability to recognize different voices. If I read two 50-word passages by Janet Evanovich and by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, I can tell that they’re written by different authors. And not by clever deduction, like whether one of the selections involves a bounty hunter and the other doesn’t, but by taking into account far more subtle clues.

The two authors sound different, in the same way that my sister and my daughter sound different on the phone. Their tones are different; the pace of their speech is different; their word choice is different; the subjects they address are different. Their voices reflect their personalities, educational level, interests and ages.

Desperately seeking approval

Unfortunately, I’m not secure enough to rely on my own thought processes. I need verification. I went to conference workshops, read more books on craft, checked out blogs and took online classes to satisfy the need to learn about voice.

At the 2008 South Carolina Writer’s Workshop, Darnell Arnoult (Sufficient Grace, 2006) differentiated between the voice of the author, the voice of the main character and the voice of the story.

The voice of the author, she explained, is the voice of a body of work over time—so I can leave that analysis to reviewers to describe.

Voice reveals character

It’s enough for me to be concerned about developing voices for the main character and the story. According to Darnell, the main character has a world view and a background that influence her word choices, creating dialogue so distinct that she doesn’t need a speech tag. The voice of the story is revealed in rhythm, energy, pacing, subject matter and word choice.

In The Fire in Fiction, agent and author Donald Maass says voice is revealed in “the outlook, opinion, details, delivery, and original perspectives that an author brings to his tale.”

Agent and author Nathan Bransford offers a wide range of craft and business assistance on his blog. “Voice, at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes,” he says. “It’s a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context.”

New York Times bestselling author Shirley Jump, who teaches online writing classes when she’s not facing a deadline, says, “You have your own unique way of looking at the world, and that perspective bubbles over into the way you tell a story, relate a joke, comment on a play—almost anything you do or say is tinted with your views on the world, your perspectives, where you live and where you work.”

At the end of a twisted quest for certainty, I arrived almost where I began.

Just keep writing. Your distinctive voice will emerge.

Share with us. What’s your view on voice? What steps did you go through to discover yours?

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Well, chick lit fans. Have you had any luck finding your voice? What’s worked for you?

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~ Chris Bailey’s writing for hire has appeared online, in numerous U.S. newspapers and in mailboxes across the U.S. and Canada.