The Elusive (and All-Important) Voice

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?


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

Please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments!

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

9 thoughts on “The Elusive (and All-Important) Voice”

  1. Three factors have helped me the most: practice, peer editors, and reading aloud (I tried to find another P, really I did!). Like Angelyn and the others, I find reading aloud as I edit (usually starting in the 3rd or 4th draft) helps me catch inconsistencies in the rhythm, and although every reader will have a different reading pace, if the rhythm is consistent in my voice, it will be consistent across the spectrum (at least for the most part). Practice is obvious: the more you write, the more your voice comes through. Peer editors help because they sometimes catch glitches or rough patches that the writer is too close to the work to see. The three working together have helped me immensely.

  2. Great topic Chris! This is the soul of your writing and I’ve heard bestselling authors say that sometimes you don’t find your voice really until after a few books. It’s what makes you unique. It’s probably the thing we continually work on — to allow that voice to surface without obsessing about all the rules. The trick is learning to let it fly! Thanks for a great blog!

  3. I agree with one of your earlier posters, I keep my “voice” consistent by reading my work out loud. And I’ve been known to have a conversation with one or more of my characters into a voice recorder, just to be certain that I accurately “hear” the voices of my characters. It’s all what you said, their level of education, age, mood, life experiences and much much more, goes into defining who they are and how they react!

    Great post!

  4. Pingback: Voice – The Conversation Continues!

  5. “Voice” is your perspective, outlook, personality, and style — said one of your sources.
    Alas, those are the very things which contest judges jump on. And, if I correctly interpret many comments from MANY successful authors … these are the components which caused them numerous rejections from publishers/agents/editors who were apparently looking for something much more like _________ [someone selling hotly at that moment].
    So, the irony stings me: the gatekeepers of the publishing world SAY they want original voices but they keep purchasing voices that are similar to what’s selling well. Sour grapes? Yeah, I guess so.
    [Please — to thouse of you already published — I mean no offense].
    It seems writers are basically penalized for breaking the rules … unless they can get away with it. Then they’re brilliant.
    It’s a bit like coaches who make a very controversial play-call. If the play works and their team wins — they’re brilliant and gutsy. But if the play fails (for whatever reason) they’re pilloried as idiots who wasted an opportunity.
    Hmm. Sounds a lot more bitter than I mean it to. I’m just saying the pundits tell us they want fresh and original … but they seem to keep their shoulder against the gate until they see if that fresh original material fits in nicely with everything else. Ha. That still sounds bitter. It’s really not. Just resigned to the notion that we’re penalized for breaking the rules … unless we get away with it.

  6. Listening has helped me more than anything when it comes to finding my voice–listening not only to the sound of real, authentic conversation around me but also listening to those terribly annoying pretend conversations inside my head, and then putting it all to good use. There’s a certain rhythm in the writing of authors with a distinctive voice. You hear it and immediately you’re in the groove of that author’s story. No one can read Janet Evanovich or Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard and NOT be aware of voice. Voice is as central to their work as the unique characters they create.

    Great blog, Chris.

  7. This is sage advice and analysis from one of the most distinctive voices I know. Thank you, Chris. Please write more.
    Your devoted fan,

  8. Thanks so much, D.D. Notes from Darnell! She’s an excellent writing coach! (And D.D., I’d recognize your voice anywhere.

  9. This is a beyond fabulous post, Chris!

    I think, for me, you nailed not just the story’s voice but the author’s voice too when you said:

    “The voice of the story is revealed in rhythm, energy, pacing, subject matter and word choice.”

    An author tells his or her core story in his or her own, very unique way via harnessing on the page their own unique voice. I find that when I read my final chapter-draft outloud — which I do for each and every chapter I write — that I’m listening for that rhythm, energy, pacing, subject matter and word choice that screams D. D. Scott-ville!!!

    And I find that voice beat by blogging and commenting on blogs throughout the day, but especially first thing in the morning before I write my new WIP pages for the day. It’s in the words and rhythms I dance to in those short formats that I get my BITCHOK groove on to be D. D. Scott on my manuscript pages for the rest of the day!!!

    Sexy Sassy Smart Finding Your Own Chick Lit Voice Wishes — D. D. Scott

    P.S. Luuuvvv the sexy sassy mart poll, btw! Fun stuff!!!

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