Playing Hide 'n Seek With Literary Voice

July 21, 2009

Everyone agrees a writer’s voice — or lack thereof — can make or break a manuscript.

But what is literary voice? And how do you improve something that’s so hard to define?

Voice is one of those things you recognize when you see it. It’s what a reader refers to when she says, “I really like the way this is written, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.” It’s writing style and tone, a reflection of the writer’s personality.

When I first started writing this travel memoir six months ago, I had trouble getting words down on paper, even though I was following an outline. It wasn’t until later, when my writing began to flow, that I realized what had stood in my way: I hadn’t found my voice. As one of my fellow newspaper friends likes to say, it was buried under years of inverted pyramids.

The best newspaper reporters write with subtle voice. But most of us trade in voice for objectivity, straight talk, low word counts and meeting deadlines. For me, realizing my voice was missing wasn’t enough to make it reappear. It took practice to let it shine naturally through my writing again.

So how did I find it? Partly through blogging. When I write for a blog, my style is rather casual, sometimes funny, showing slivers of my personality. That’s why keeping a travel blog was so great for my book. Sure, the blog provided content that I’m now using in the book, but writing it also helped me escape my strict reporter mentality and embrace writing with voice. My blog writing isn’t perfect — I often rushed to write posts, hoping the African Internet connection would hold up — but it has personality. (Still not sure what I’m talking about? This post about marriage proposals in Cameroon is a good example.)

What I’m suggesting here is that blogging can improve your literary voice. But what if you don’t have any voice to begin with? Is this something a writer can learn?

Perhaps, as Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen suggests, writers should focus more on freeing their voice rather than learning to write with one. She and Holly Lisle both offer ideas about how to develop personality in writing.

At a critique group meeting recently, a fellow writer commented that she could hear my voice in my chapter. To her it was a small compliment. To me, a show of achievement, how much I’ve improved.

The truth is, I can hear it, too. This week, I revisited a chapter I wrote months ago, and I was surprised to see how obviously it lacked my voice that saturates chapters I wrote more recently. Now I’m in the process of going back through that chapter and inserting my voice, not only to improve the writing but also to make it match the personality of the rest of the book.

What’s literary voice to you? How do you work to improve it?

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    16 Replies to “Playing Hide 'n Seek With Literary Voice”

    • I think you’ve defined it well.

      To me, it’s the voice in my head when I’m thinking. (No, I really don’t hear voices!) :)You know, as you go through your day and you have snarky thoughts about people, or wonder about things, or plan stuff. It’s me. Then I put me on paper.

      Mystery Writing is Murder

    • great post! I have always struggeld in my newspaper column with showing too much voice- I needed to tone it down a bit until I got the hang of it-but now , in writing my books, it’s very freeing.

    • Karen Walker says:

      My literary voice to me is saying it my way, with my phrasing, tone, point of view, perspective, etc. Anne Lamott said 4 billion people could sing the same song and each will be a different rendition. No one will express something exactly the same way as someone else. That difference is our literary voice, I think.

    • Gee, all the above posters have been right on-point with definitions of Voice. So…what they said.

      Your observations about blog writing ring true. For me, it’s much more casual than my voice in novels…way different. Sometimes, I’m too casual and ramble. Over the past month or more, I’ve tried to edit that out–or at least down–a bit. Blog writing has been helpful in many ways. Glad I do it. You do it well.

      Best regards, Galen

      Imagineering Fiction Blog

    • jessiecarty says:

      Funny you mentioned that about blogging because I recently celebrated an anniversary of sorts so I went back to read earlier blog posts and there is a definite difference to the sound of the sentences together.

      Nothing like writing to help you to find who you are again 🙂

    • Laurie PK says:

      For me, freeing my voice is the hardest part of writing. I’m not sure if that’s true for everyone…..

      When I was a teacher, I went to a “how to teach kids to write” seminar and studied kids’ writing samples. Some of them had the most amazing voices, I couldn’t believe it! Who they were just shone through in their writing.

      I believe we all have our own unique voices…and some are more compelling than others. Like singers, artists, architects, gardeners, carpenters — anyone who creates stuff.

      Thanks for this post, Alexis — and for mentioning me! Much obliged 🙂


    • This is definitely one of the most elusive things with regard to writing and it’s funny when one considers that we use our voices all the time. It’s different when it’s your writing voice, however. I think these are great tips for finding the voice. I write in my blog as much as possible and I never really considered the benefits that one can find from simply writing on a regular basis. Thank you for this post, Alexis!

    • C.L. Dyck says:

      I think voice development can be different depending on the project. I can recall reading some novelists who manage to insert a different character voice for each point of view used. I find that truly fascinating.

      Blogging has certainly helped me find my voice, but also to develop different sides of it as I’ve interacted with different communities that have different tone preferences. It hasn’t hurt me as a writer to run 2 or 3 different hobby-oriented blogs.

      It’s all still me, just different sides. That in itself is kinda empowering.

    • Carolyn Yalin says:

      I echo a lot of what was said above. I just started blogging and found it has already helped me.

    • I think you find your voice when you allow yourself to forget about the rules of writing that have been pounded in your head through the years. Once you start writing in a style that seems right to you, although it may not be conventional, your voice naturally shines through.

    • Absolutely on the money. A great way to explain voice and how to find it. The most important statement here focused on ‘freeing’ a writers voice rather than devising one the writer doesn’t know.

      Great blog.

    • Great post! I think I recently found my voice and yet the blogging has helped so much! I hear other writer’s voice thru their blogs too and it makes me want to or not want to read more!

    • K. A. Laity says:

      Excellent! Glad to see you’re recognizing it yourself. It’s a difficult thing to locate at times.

    • You pulled in some great comments on this one, Alexis. A good post on a tough topic.

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