Why the Most Important Element of Writing is Voice

Writing Voice: 6 Things You Need to Know to Improve It

Why the Most Important Element of Writing is VoiceWriting a book isn’t just a discovery of the story, it’s also a discovery of yourself. Who are you, really? The answers you find appearing on the screen with each word you type can be surprising. And nowhere is the truth about an author revealed more unequivocally than when you open your literary mouth, loosen your metaphorical vocal cords, and . . . sing. The writing voice that emerges is a raw, honest assessment of you.

In part, this is why the topic of the writing voice is initially a scary one. We all have to have a voice, and, more than that, it has to be amazing.

But… how are you supposed to gain this amazing but decidedly slippery writing voice?

It’s all a bit vague. Just . . . be you. Just . . . be awesome.

And that’s where much of the rawness of spilling pieces of yourself onto the page, word by word by word, can become daunting.

6 Facts to Help You Understand Your Writing Voice

Today, I want to talk about six of the most important principles of the writing voice—both to demystify it a bit and to provide you some solid ideas for moving forward in giving readers a powerfully authentic experience of your stories.

1. Your Writing Voice Is to Your Prose What Your Theme Is to Your Story

Every book is comprised of two very different, but equally important aspects: story and execution. For a book to work, both must be brilliant. You can have an excellent story, but if you fail to bring it vividly to life in your writing, in a way that allows readers to experience it, then it’s kinda like that that tree falling in the woods where no one can actually hear it.

If a tree falls in the woods..

I talk a lot on this site about the importance of theme to story. Indeed, ultimately, story is theme. Theme is the beating heart of all narrative experiences and the determining factor in whether or not readers will emotionally relate to what you’ve created.

What theme is to story, voice is to writing. Voice is the secret “it” factor that takes serviceable but forgettable narrative writing and launches it into the stratosphere. It is what brings stories to life.

In an interview in The Writer (March 2017), Alaska Quarterly Review editor Ronald Spatz emphasized:

…it is generally not plot that ultimately hooks us but rather the voice of the piece. The voice must be strong and idiosyncratic enough to create a unique persona and drive the piece forward.

In short, a strong writing voice is integral to a strong book. Just as you seek strong themes for your stories, you must just as assiduously seek a strong voice for executing that story.

2. Your Voice Should Celebrate Your Imperfections

Okay, strong writing voice. Got it. But… what is that exactly?

Naturally, there are many factors, but if we had to boil a good writing voice down to one core element, the one I would choose would be: imperfection.

As Spatz says above, a good writing voice is “idiosyncratic.” It is unusual, unique, personal.

A good writing voice is representative of humanity: decidedly imperfect, but deliciously fascinating and possibly even lovable not just in spite of the flaws but because of them.

Normal-Is-Boring

Which of the following is more interesting?

The straightforward, properly parsed:

My father warned me I would be punished if I hit someone again. He informed me I was now too old to behave so badly.

Or Scout Finch’s slangy frankness in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more; I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be.

To Kill a Mockingbird Scouts Fight at School

None of us speaks perfectly. We all have pet phrases, tics, favored slang, mispronounced words, emotion-driven fragments and run-ons. From all these things, our personality emerges vividly to those around us. The same is true in our writing: the limitless possibilities of imperfect language allow us to reveal to our readers our own personalities and, by extension, the personality of our stories and our characters.

3. Your Writing Voice Should Be an Honest Representation of You

Although your voice in each new story will be influenced by the specifics of that story, it will always be your voice. You’re the one bleeding onto the page. Readers may think they come for your lovable characters, but really they come for you. They come for your honesty, for your unique insights into the world, for the unique colors of your personality. They come for your joy and for your pain.

If you can’t give them that, stop writing right now.

It’s not always easy, of course. For the same reason you sometimes censor your words and even disguise parts of your true self when trying to make a good impression on certain people, you can also hesitate to allow yourself to feel too exposed in letting your personality rip on the page. Creating a writing voice that is silly, strident, anxious, brutal, idealistic, or anything less than perfect will reveal truths about yourself.

You’re very likely to discover a few things about yourself that even you weren’t fully conscious of. Sometimes you might be a little ashamed of what you find. Or sometimes you may realize what you’re exposing on the page is simply a deeply private part of yourself. Either way, creating an honest writing voice can sometimes be a very vulnerable experience.

But this very vulnerability is what gives your voice authenticity, interest, and power. Let ‘er rip. Write scared.

4. Your Writing Voice Must Be an Honest Representation of Your Characters

Authorial voice and character voice are not the same thing. Although your authorial voice will inevitably color everything you write, you will also need to adjust it to properly represent the varied characters you are bringing to life for your readers.

The personalities of certain characters will lend themselves more easily to lively narrative voices. This should always be a consideration when choosing narrators. But you must also take into account the setting that has shaped your characters, as well as the times in which they live.

For example, although all my stories inescapably bear the imprint of my voice, the narrative voice for my 1920s Nebraska barnstorming novel Storming was necessarily much different from my 1820s London superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer:

Storming

Flying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D, meant being ready for anything. But in Hitch’s thirteen years of experience, this was the first time “anything” had meant bodies falling out of the night sky smack in front of his plane.

True enough that flying and falling just kind of went together. Not in a good sort of way, but in a way you couldn’t escape. Airplanes fell out of the clouds, and pilots fell out of their airplanes. Not on purpose, of course, but it did happen sometimes, like when some dumb palooka forgot to buckle his safety belt, then decided to try flying upside down.

Flying and falling, freedom and dependence, air and earth. That was just the way it was. But whatever was falling always had to be falling from some place. No such thing as just falling out of the sky, ’cause nothing was up there to fall out of.

Which didn’t at all explain the blur of plummeting shadows just a couple hundred yards in front of his propeller.

Wayfarer

Around Affery, in the north of Surrey, hamlet folk cherished the plague.

Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.

That was why he ran, head up, arms pumping, directly towards the source of it.

After last month’s barley harvest, the fields lay in barren contentment, even with his feet flinging soil clods. The sun burnt through the crisp autumn breeze and heated his face. He was belated, and considering what awaited him, that was far worse than any fabled plague.

He reached the stile in the midst of the tumbled stone wall. In one stride, he leapt the three steps. Another stride took him as easily down the other side.

Or rather, the second stride would have been as easy—save for the face that distracted him from the corner of his eye.

5. Your Writing Voice Is Something You Create

A common question among writers is, “Where do I get a writing voice?

Voice is a culmination of every word you write. As you strengthen your craft in every aspect of prose—from grammar to showing vs. telling—you will be refining your voice.

But voice is also something you can approach deliberately. Indeed, you should approach it deliberately.

Ask yourself:

  • How do you want your stories to sound?
  • What personality and tone do you want to infuse them with?
  • What word choices can you look for that will inject life and interest into what you’re creating?
  • Who are some authors whose style you particularly admire and resonate with?

Then practice.

Set time aside to just throw words onto the page. Play around with your characters’ voices. Strive to evoke the differing personalities of each different person in your book. Write things you know no one will ever read, and give yourself permission to be wild on the page. Take your vocal idiosyncrasies too far and see what you can learn out there on the edge of civilization and what lessons you can then bring back to your actual book.

6. Your Writing Voice Is Something You Discover

It’s true your writing voice is inevitably something you can create—to the degree that you are aware of it. But you can’t fake that awareness. You have to slowly discover it and refine your understanding of it as it emerges.

You can’t manufacture an excellent writing voice any more than you can mimic Helen Mirren’s accent and pretend you’re British. The only person you can authentically be is you. And yet, who you are is an ongoing discovery.

The same is true of your writing voice. It will emerge and evolve just as you do as a person. You can’t force that. You can only be attentive to it and ready to take full advantage of it. As award-winning short-story writer Brent van Staalduinen said in his March 2017 interview with The Writer:

Write what you’d like to read, and don’t worry about finding a “voice”: it’ll come with practice (and blood, sweat, tears, etc.)

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you happy with the writing voice you’re using right now? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. M.L. Bull says:

    Great post! When I first started out, I had a hard time identifying my writing voice and didn’t even really know what it was. Over the years, I see that I elaborate quite a bit on narrative summary, and character dialogue is one of my strongest points. I like to add humor and wit to what characters say from time to time, which makes sense because I do the same thing in real life. Though aware of these things, this blog helped shined a little more light on what writing voice is. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Such a great post, thanks. I like how you framed this: Your Writing Voice Is to Your Prose What Your Theme Is to Your Story. That makes total sense, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Theme–>Story, and really the storytelling part of writing, I always felt you could sort of learn. With a lot of study and practice. And I incorporate theme in my outlining along with plot and character. But voice… it still scares me. I fear I don’t have one. And it might be true! It’s so nebulous; like if someone says you don’t have one, you wouldn’t have any clue how to fix it (unlike say story structure). Besides saying “it comes with experience and practice” I hadn’t seen anyone really tackle it, or break it down the way you did. It almost feels manageable! I’m going to try playing around as per your suggestions. For those of us fortunate to only have one book or series, we haven’t had to worry about maintaining authorial voice within different time periods or characters. I’m sweating now. But your examples from your own writing were a good illustration, thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Everyone has a voice! 🙂 No worries there. But a great voice? That’s something we’re all working on refining.

  3. This is a great demystification of what often seems mysterious to writers. I agree, authenticity is the key here.
    I find it a strange balance between just being myself and also crafting my voice.
    It’s like looking at something out of the corner of your eye, if you focus too hard on it you’re missing the point and get distracted but if you never look at it, you might be missing out on a great opportunity to engage your audience. In order to embrace your author voice, you first have to recognize that you have one.
    As with just about everything, it’s a work in progress for me. But it is an aspect of the process I truly enjoy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think this idea of “looking out of the corner of your eye” is true of many things about writing–and creativity in general. It’s why learning to balance the “rules” against our instincts is often such a delicate dance.

  4. Spot on!
    I agree with Brent van Staalduinen: don’t “worry (too much) about finding your voice, it’ll come with practice.”
    Voice can be developed.
    It can be strengthened.
    (After much bleeding.)
    Having said that, as you pointed out, finding and cultivating our unique voice will only surface once we are brave enough, to be honest.
    And being honest makes us vulnerable.
    In our vulnerability, we may find strength as well.
    If we master that, our prose may just hook our readers.
    Thanks for the insights, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I believe being vulnerable is one of the bravest things any of us can do–and therefore one of the strongest.

  5. One of the hardest things you can tell a fledgling writer is that their work lacks voice. But it is usually the problem that new writers have. They’re unhappy because they don’t know why their stuff isn’t good, and when you try to tell them it’s because their stories don’t have a voice, it’s hard to make that sound like anything other than an accusation.

    Persisting through that frustration is part of the dues that all writers pay, unfortunately. Most will eventually stumble into their own voice, as they keep writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Weak voice is usually the result of other foundational weaknesses within the young writer’s work. If we can help them focus on those–showing vs. telling, incorrect word choices for certain narrators, POV lapses–then we’ll also be helping them strengthen the overall voice of the piece.

  6. I’m coming across this issue as I bounce back and forth between two WIPs. One is brimming with ‘voice’, thanks to the personality of the main character. The narrative voice in the other WIP is much more bland. I think this is because of the differences in each character’s personality and so forth. However, I’ve heard that unless you are positive that your protagonist brings something good in terms of voice to the table, you’re better off writing in third instead of first. What is your opinion?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely agree with this. Deep third- and first person are very similar in terms of the intimate narrative they’re able to offer. The chief difference is the perceived proximity to the narrators–which, of course, is closer in first-person. As such, voice in first-person is arguably more important than in any other narrative. It can make or break the story. If the character doesn’t have an excellent voice, the narrative can easily do a 180 on us and make readers dislike a character they wouldn’t have necessarily been turned off by in third-person.

      Here’s a post on the topic: Don’t Even Think About Using First-Person Unless…

  7. Joe Long says:

    When reading the posts on this blog, I normally dive into the first paragraph – but I can tell within a few sentences when the voice “is off” and I check the byline to confirm that it was done by a guest writer and not our Miss Weiland.

    It took my a while to get comfortable and consistent with my style. I think cinematically and learned to show which has caused my work to be dialogue heavy. However, my conversations aren’t drawn out. The characters say what needs said in a logical and hopefully authentic construct and I move on. However, it’s been nearly two years since I started and my voiced has evolved since the early chapters were written. Editing!

    I also harbor vestiges of my western Pennsylvania dialect, such as “needs said” instead of “needs to be said.” My WIP uses this in dialogue, and as is pointed out by Katie, the narrator (especially when first person, as mine is) should match the place and time of the story. I look at the narration as the written version of the language while the dialogue is, of course, the spoken version. The narration in many ways echoes the style of the dialogue but it’s also cleaned up somewhat and grammatically correct, while trying to have the dialogue authentic while still easy to read.

    When reading “Storming” I heard the narrator’s voice in my head in a rural Midwest accent, something like Slim Pickens or Uncle Joe on “Petticoat Junction.”

    I’m reworking my opening by dropping the prologue in favor of a few introductory paragraphs. After seeing Katie quote the opening of “Storming” I’ll reread it for an example of establishing the setting and introducing the protagonist and his world while not telling or info dumping. “My World and Welcome To It.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Storming was the easiest and most natural character voice I’ve ever written–mostly, because it’s so close to my own: breezy, slangy, a little old-fashioned, and decidedly Midwestern. Once, in a different book, I had a critique partner point out that my voice seemed to be all over the place: informal and friendly here, British slang there, hundred-dollar words there. I was like: “What’s inconsistent about that? That’s how I talk.” :p

      In writing other stories, I have to be careful not to let my own capriciously broad vocabulary leach over. Another crit partner pointed out that many of my characters, regardless the setting, start out sounding like Old-West gunslingers. Blame a childhood diet of John Ford. :p I’m slowly learning to be more aware of this.

      As for spotting the guest authors and their voices on this site, I used to play a game when reading magazines in which I’d try to guess the gender of the author just from reading the article. I was able to guess rightly more often than not!

  8. My favorite authors are the ones with the strongest voices: Harlan Ellison and Hunter S. Thompson. For a long time, I would sound like whoever I read last who sounded distinctive. Eventually I found myself: Unsurprisingly, I was right where I had left myself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Voice is *the* deciding factor for me in buying a book. I’ll look at the first chapter, not so much to see if the plot hooks me, but to see if I find a confident, masterful voice. If I don’t, I’m inclined to believe the rest of the book’s execution isn’t going to be so masterful either–and I pass it by.

  9. Whether the muse rides the chariot of my mind or reclines in Bedouin evenings plucking at soulful strings, I sometimes gaze inward with awe and wonder who wrote the words beneath my pen.
    Discovering one’s writing voice is like finding a magic mirror. It can be both exhilerating and terrifying.

  10. Jayne Clary says:

    Thank you, Katie, for addressing this subject. It has clarified much for me but not all. (Apologies — I am a wanton over-thinker!) I am still confused by the way voice, view and writing style overlap. (You wouldn’t happen to have a Venn diagram up your sleeve? I’m very visual :D) Is one’s voice still as authentic if using third person POV?

    I recently joined a writer’s workshop at a women’s university. I was told my style was very distinctive and more than one person described it as “musical.” Which really startled me as, if true, it was entirely unconscious on my part. Was this my voice “singing?” Also, my story is a fantasy (told in third person), a genre unfortunately unfamiliar to (or outright disdained by) everyone else in the workshop. But the vast majority said they loved it! Does this mean my “voice” is coming through as genuine?

    My noggin is somewhat jumbled with the feedback I’m getting on my writing. I’ve had absolutely zilch for years. Thanks again, Katie, for all you do “authorizing” writers! ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Voice is in everything you write–consciously or unconsciously. This is true of prose and poetry, first-person and third-person, fiction and non-fiction. The *style* will differ depending on the requirements of the medium, but your voice is always the unique and particular slant you bring the piece via your word choice.

  11. This is a post I need to share. I feel like I understand the concept of voice, but have never been able to describe it with actual words. Thanks for helping me clarify it in my head 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Voice and words go together well, I find. 😉 Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for sharing!

  12. This really is one of the best posts yet! The Brent van Staalduinen quote was extremely helpful in bringing the point home to me.

    A few years ago, I was briefly very interested in handwriting analysis and bought a couple of books on the subject, complete with illustrations and explanations of what certain tics and flourishes (supposedly) say about the writer’s personality. One of them addressed an objection — “I don’t write like this out of compulsion. I write like this on purpose because I like the way these shapes look.” The book had a sound answer: the point is that it is the liking itself that (supposedly) says something about who you are.

    I’m skeptical of the accuracy of handwriting analysis, but I do think this point holds true for writing (real writing, not just handwriting). What you write is (hopefully) what you think would be beautiful or exciting or insightful or whatever quality you look for in a story, and no matter how much you try to hide, every choice says something. (The friend who did my handwriting analysis said, “This is just copybook cursive, and it hides so much. But that in itself tells me a lot.”)

    With my newest project, I keep thinking, “If I write THAT, then people will KNOW.” But I guess that’s the point. We read and write fiction to connect. And we might as we do our best at connecting, because people are going to KNOW whether we hide or not. The question is whether they will delight in knowing, because we’ve revealed ourselves with skill and panache and with the joy of connecting, or not.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great analogy. I adore Dickens, Patrick O’Brian, and Patrick Rothfuss–but I don’t want to write like any of them. I appreciate their individual beauty, but not in the same way I appreciate authors whose style lines up more closely with my own. Those are the authors who make me go: I want to write like that!

  13. When I’m talking with new writers I urge them to use their own style of expression. In effect, develop their Writing Voice.
    It seems to be a slippery concept.
    So for simplicity (I have a simple mind) I tell them to close their eyes and imagine sitting with a cup of coffee across a table from an old friend. Now tell the story to the friend.
    I think it works.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It is a slippery concept. And as with most slippery concepts, a simple approach is best. This is great advice.

  14. So glad you mention the difference between author voice and character voice. Character voice is much easier to capture since it’s specific to a given piece, but author voice is more abstract, since it emerges over several pieces and isn’t necessarily the use of certain words or phrases, ie there’s no reason an author will always opt to be narrator, as themselves, telling a story (like Charles Dickens who sets himself up as biographer). You’re right that author voice goes deeper, to the specific quirks of what we want to tell, leave untold, and just how we render story into prose. I for one am grateful to have an editor during my early drafts because I make bold moves that I can only write if I think they will never see the light of day, and thus embarrass me forever; only to be told the story is really working there and the theme is shining through in that scene I took a leap on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Too, character voice is usually easier for us to get our heads around, since there’s objective distance from ourselves. We’re often too close to our own voices, in the beginning, to even see it. This is why many new authors ask, “Do I even have a voice?” The answer is definitely, yes. Others can hear it even though you aren’t conscious of it yet.

  15. Anne D. says:

    Great post and great comments…for folks who are able to quick turn a phrase or who are capable of storytelling in person.

    If be yourself is the key to finding writing voice then why do we edit? Why not just publish first drafts? Aren’t they the most authentic voice, the deepest, rawest choices and the unedited expression of “you?”

    I know the questions may seem specious but based on this advice my writing voice is long looping sentences no one but me can follow.

    It’s for that reason I’ve given up on developing a writing voice. I just write. What comes out comes out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Think of it like this: Do you always say the first thing that comes to mind? Those statements, even the inappropriate ones, are undeniably *you* and in your voice. But that doesn’t mean they’re always the best choice. In taking a moment to rethink a statement or a phrasing, you’re still conveying a thought in your own authentic voice, but in a more effective and accessible way.

  16. Director Noah says:

    An excellent and thought provoking post K.M, on a important writing subject!
    I found that my writing voice has developed naturally over time, but has evolved and improved the more I write. I’m a total believer that voice should not be forced, but allowed to flow instinctivly and be carefully refined, as the writer grows in understanding of his craft.

    A strong, unique narrative voice is the key to pulling off a great work of fiction.
    Plot and voice are two sides of the writer’s coin. It’s like art: you can have a beautiful landscape or portrait in front of you, but if you lack the skill and talent to capture the magic and essence of it in colours, it will be lifeless. It’s the same with novels, when the author’s voice is either weak or sloppy.

    One of the things that greatly redefined and strengthened my writing voice, was the *showing, not telling* aspect.

    When I first began writing my trunk novel, I’d felt for many months, that my writing was bland and lifeless in some way, and lacked something badly, but I didn’t know what was wrong. Then I discovered that you needed to show scenes, not tell the readers what was happening like a commentator. I think a lot of novice writers fall into this trap in the beginning.
    Stories are like mental movies, and in movies, characters and their emotions are shown to the audience through words and actions. Once I realised this fact, my writing voice became stronger, more dynamic and accomplished, and generally all the better for it. ?
    Now I’ll have to watch my vocabulary choices and make sure my voice stays consistant throughout the novel! (nervous smile)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, show vs. tell is one of the foundational principles we all have to learn. Honestly, I tend to think that the art of fictional prose, in general, is the art of showing. We’re all still learning how to refine it.

  17. Joe Long says:

    You got me to read To Kill a Mockingbird this week. I’d seen the movie ages ago but didn’t remember much. I enjoyed the book and cried at the end. Another quality piece of writing to study.

  18. Ms. Albina says:

    Great article, I like the author voices of j.k. Rowling and Jane Austen. They show and not tell when they write. I am still writing the novel.

    From the story is a letter from Leilani’s father the king of the mera clan.

    Dear Leilani,

    Please leave immediately to travel to Serena isle. The yellow plague has spread to three islands. Time to move quickly. Priestesses Merida, Merlyn and Cara will accompany you traveling to Serena isle. Be careful and have faith.
    We love you so much.

    Love,

    Your father

    Is this letter okay written for Leilani or needs to be shorter.

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