Finding your Writer’s Voice

Leo Tolstoy

One of the fundamental challenges confronting every writer is “finding their voice”, their unique expression in the field or medium in which they’ve chosen to express themselves. When Alasdair Stuart – editor of The Hub e-zine and host of the horror podcast Pseudopod – was asked to identify the quality that defines the stories he’s drawn to, he sited, “a strong confident authorial voice. That feeling of, for want of a better word, swagger. If you can hit that point where you are in absolute control of your story… but it’s still you, then that really makes me sit up and take notice.”

We all strive for that effortless grace and utter conviction that transports our readers to the worlds we’ve crafted. It can’t be faked, applied, or forced. It just is, and the way to achieve such prose is NOT necessarily to write more. While it’s sound advice, “writing more” won’t help you find your voice any more than “running more” will help you run a marathon. Discovering the honest authenticity of Your Voice is not a writing exercise, it’s a quest worthy of any mythic hero.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize
The objective is to write like YOU and no one else. This isn’t about adopting some style, expanding your vocabulary, or applying structure. This is about discovery. Just remember two things…

#1: You already have Your Voice
It’s in you, inherent and hardwired into your DNA. Every breathing moment – awake or asleep – has layered depth and breadth and scope to Your Voice. It rumbles like grinding continents, burns like lightning, and whispers like a child on Santa’s knee. It’s authentic and powerful and it’s yours.

#2: You don’t have to find Your Voice
You don’t have to find Your Voice any more than you have to find your pancreas. All you have to do is understand it (Your Voice, not your pancreas).

The best writers throughout the ages understood themselves intimately. That didn’t stop some of them (okay, many of them) from being psychotic, pathological, depressive, maniacal, or a pain in the ass. But with a pen, some paper, and a few scratches of ink, they could break your heart. Because they wrote from theirs.

What Are You Looking For?
A writer’s “voice” is expressed through the choices made in story development such as sentence structure, vocabulary, character development, dialogue, plot structure, and theme. If you’re thinking, “Dang, that’s pretty much everything,” then kudos. You’re right, which is why the search for the elusive “voice” can feel so daunting. How do you consciously define every aspect of your writing style?

You don’t. You’re not defining anything, but rather discovering what’s already there through intent and focused attention. You’re not looking for some trick to become something you’re not… you’re awakening a connection to the parts of you that feed the fire of your creative impulse.

A Word of Caution
Leo Tolstoy said, “Human science fragments everything in order to understand it, kills everything in order to examine it.”

Trying to understand your Voice can feel like research, clinical and analytic and sterile. Your initial efforts will be exactly that as you examine the palette of influences and experience that inform your writing style. And that can choke your creative flow into an anemic trickle.

Think of the creative impulse like a garden. You can laydown good soil, water, and sunlight… but you can’t force the seeds to grow. Your creativity works the same way. You can’t control it… all you can do is foster an environment that encourages growth. So balance your explorations with opportunities to apply them creatively. That will connect the tangible discoveries with the less tangible use of them through your creative expression.

Mapping Your Passions
To tell a good story, you first have to understand what makes a good story. Not according to your freshman English professor, but according to you. Stop listening to what other people think is good and pay close attention to YOUR aesthetic tastes. The stories that interest and excite you contain the key to finding what you’re looking for.

  • Go to your bookshelf (digital or analog)
    Pretend you have to throw away all but five of them. Take a look at the ones you picked. What are they about? What happens in them? Figure out, very specifically, why these books are so important to you.
  • Read with intent
    Pick up one of those books, one you haven’t read for a while, and read it again. Pay close attention to that endorphin rush you get when you read a nice bit of dialog or a sweet narrative passage. Stop. Look at what you just read. Closely. Scrutinize each sentence, each paragraph. Understand what it is about that collection of words that got your pulse rate up.

Rinse and Repeat
For the next week, do the same thing with everything else in your life. Don’t just acknowledge your passions and interests but make the effort to understand them. Stories, actors, foods, music , neighborhoods, plants, clothes… log it all down and scrutinize every one of them until you’ve nailed down the connection they have to you.

After a week or so, you’ll have a tiny section of the map to what connects you to the world. Coincidentally, you’ll also have a tiny section of the map to what connects you to your writing.

Use Your Map
Now that you have the first inklings of where your Voice resides, try putting them to use in your writing.

Find a paragraph that’s utterly devoid of linguistic color. News stories are the best source, so hit your local newspaper or online news source. Find a story about something you have no emotional or intellectual interest in, pick a random paragraph, and copy it onto a blank sheet.

On a separate blank sheet, rewrite it using the elements and discoveries you made in the previous exercise. Turn it into a quote by the type of character you gravitate to. Don’t fuss over it… just write it from that new perspective. Try it again with a radically different character. Apply a genre spin to it, so it becomes a fantasy or scifi passage. You don’t have to be faithful to the original; adapt whatever you need.

Read each of your creations, noting the differences between the original and the other re-invented paragraphs. Identify specifically what changes evoked the strongest sense of person and place. Those are the marks of your craft and the echoes of your Voice starting to become clear.

Mimic Your Favorites
It has been observed that new writers tend to unconsciously mimic the writers and genres that inspire them. Look at your early work and you’ll see it’s true (mine certainly did). We’re subconsciously trying to recreate that heady rush we got when we read the work in the first place.

Something in those stories speaks directly to your inspiration, so drag that subconscious impulse out into the light. Write a few paragraphs like Gaiman. Or Rothfuss. Or Martin. Do it, not to BE like them, but rather to understand the nuances and details of their unique expression.

Immerse yourself in one writer’s work, studying it meticulously. Then, repeat the newspaper exercise above, only this time, re-write the paragraphs in the manner of your chosen author. As an alternative, scifi author David Brin recommended (in a recent episode of the Writing Excuses Podcast) actually transcribing a few pages of said writer’s work. According to Brin, this allows you to be objective and not get sucked in by the prose.

Read Other People’s Reviews
This process you’re engaged in depends upon the ability to analyze and understand your writing ability. But it’s also about expanding your sensibilities and embracing a larger vision of your own expression. What better way to expand your ability to examine your own work than to study those who do it for a living.

Reviews by insightful reviewers are invaluable in expanding your awareness of the elements and craft of storytelling. In each review, you get to look at the writing craft through the analytical eyes of someone with years of experience honed to tease out the underlying structure of literature and examine its strengths and virtues. Don’t worry about the reviewer’s opinion of what’s being reviewed… examine the reviewer’s process and the elements they hold up to the light. These are the same tools you can apply to your own quest for understanding

Try the New York Times, London Review of Books, or Kirkus Reviews. Also, “More Intelligent Life” has a great listing of excellent reviewers to select from (OUR GUIDE TO THE BEST CRITICS: BOOKS | More Intelligent Life).

Final Words
Writers strive to create characters and stories that make our readers forget their world in favor of ours, surrendering their reality for the one we craft with our words.

There are many skills that need to be developed to earn such trust – good prose, strong plot line, engaging characters – but the fundamental quality is honesty. When you write honestly, your stories become worthy of the trust every reader wants to give when they open a book.

The quest for your writer’s voice is a quest for that honesty. It’s about uncluttering your expression of all preconception and pretense. It’s about discovering that you don’t have to be “good”… you just have to be you. Trying to be anything else is not only a waste of time, but also a denial of all the qualities you have that will make you the amazing writer you can be.

Dave Robison and creative writing teacher Brion Humphrey host The Roundtable Podcast, where they invite writers to workshop their story ideas with authors, publishers, and editors.  Writers of all levels and experience are welcome to join… visit the website and sign up for your episode!

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Steve Redmond
Steve Redmond
8 years ago

Thanks so much for writing this. I have been struggling to uncover my true writer’s voice for so long, I had almost lost hope. I learned a lot from reading this and I think it will really help me discover how to write from my heart and my head and not try to mimic someone else.

Riviera
Riviera
8 years ago

I love the humorous element in this article. I have always been a bit scared of terms like ‘voice’, maybe because I didn’t really understand it. It’s helpful to have the concept spelled out in a straightforward way.

Keith
Keith
8 years ago

I have a writer’s voice in my head when I’m thinking, but translating it to paper is a different ball game. I wish my mind had a pencil when I’m driving. That’s exactly the voice I want to capture.

Kaylee Hammond
Kaylee Hammond
Reply to  Keith
8 years ago

 Keith, get yourself a recorder and start saying out loud what you are thinking while you are driving.  You can transcribe it yourself or pay someone to transcribe it for you later.

Reela
Reela
8 years ago

Hmm… I’m not so sure I want to examine myself that closely. Is it possible to continue writing without delving into myself? Writing is an escape for me. Perhaps that is my voice.

Dottier
Dottier
8 years ago

You seem to have read my mind. Many times whilst reading a book that I love, I try to analyse just what it is about the composition or content that makes it so magical but, so far, I have failed to pin it down. My own work has a long way to go!

Dave
Reply to  Dottier
8 years ago

 Congratulations, Dottier (sincerely)… in your last sentence you’ve revealed one of the founding principals that you must never let go of if you are to become the writer you CAN be.

My article may have been a bit misleading in implying that, once found, you’ll actually KEEP your voice.  That would be a horrible thing… to find your voice, use it for a book or two, and then watch it wither and die in complacency and arrogance.

The quest never ends, CAN’T ever end because the “you” you are is constantly evolving.  So if your “voice” comes form the heart of who you are, and you are constantly growing and changing with experiences and discoveries…

I believe that the confidence and conviction of the best writers comes not from the knowledge that they “found” it, but rather in their ability to continue seeking it, leaving 80-100K word breadcrumbs bound in leather (or pixels) behind  them to mark where they have passed through.

Get good at seeking, write honestly, and learn to love the journey.  Destinations are a myth and as soon as you think you’ve “arrived”, I heartily recommend you seek the nearest exit. ; )

Jackelynn
Jackelynn
8 years ago

I’m only allowed to pick five books from my collection of over 500? I wouldn’t even know where to begin narrowing that list down! You are asking too much, sir. =P

Dave
Reply to  Jackelynn
8 years ago

I know… it’s harsh and cruel.  But Jackelynn, it’s essential, especially with a collection as large as yours.  You’re  trying to find the core, the elemental essence of what you really love about the stories you read (and this the stories you’ll likely write).  More than five blurs the distinction and less is too few, possibly restricting some nuance or aspect of your “Voice-to-be.”

Just try it… make those hard choices.  I’ll bet you’ll find that the 5 you pick are like distilled creative plutonium and will reveal the fiery core of your creative expression.  It’s all about clarity at this point… you can flourish and bloom once you have your feet firmly on the bedrock of your expression. 😉

Jackelynn
Jackelynn
Reply to  Dave
8 years ago

 Alright, you talked me into it. I picked my five. I’m not sharing because they are very personal, but they have been chosen! I’ve found the link between them as well. Let’s see how well this works. =)

Lyrie
Lyrie
8 years ago

Finding your voice is very difficult indeed.  I liked your suggestions and look forward to picking out my five essential books so I can get started. 🙂

Dave Robison
Reply to  Lyrie
8 years ago

Let us know what you find there, Lyrie.  When you have to pick five out of a hundred (or more) books, you really get a sense for what’s important to you.

Brion
Brion
8 years ago

Dave, awesome job delineating the choas that overwhelms us when we approach Voice as a wild animal that can’t be tamed.  You very gently and very succinctly put it into words that are infinitly more helpful than most articles I’ve read on the subject.  I especially enjoyed the section about using reviewers.  What a brilliant idea.  I’ll be using this in my Creative Writing class and may even have them analyze some reviews.  I love when you lesson plan for me.  Excellent, Sir!  Excellent!

Dave Robison
Reply to  Brion
8 years ago

Thanks, Bri!  Glad I can help you in the corruption of our nation’s yout… er… edifying and expanding the minds of young people everywhere! ; ) [disclaimer: Brion is my esteemed co-host in the Roundtable Podcast and an inspired and inspiring teacher]

And yeah, the reviewer thing was something I started doing a year or so ago. It really helps inform the discussion and thought of writing when you understand (and thus control) the critical evaluation of literary work.  I haven’t mastered it by any means, but it builds confidence in the ability to gauge the merits of a story (even your own).

Jamie Gibbs
8 years ago

Excellent advice. I find similar things when people blog as well as writing fiction – they attempt to much to appear to be someone that they aren’t, and it shows. They come off as pretentious or offensive when they’re just trying to write in a skin they aren’t comfortable living in.

Dave Robison
Reply to  Jamie Gibbs
8 years ago

 You’re absolutely right, Jamie.  It’s interesting to me that the same issues of identity and worth that we struggle with as writers tend to mirror similar issues in other aspects of our lives.  I know I question myself and sometimes make compromises in the interest of “fitting in”, but inevitably – no matter how awkward it may be – there’s great strength to be found in “wearing your own skin” (great metaphor, btw). Achieving authority and confidence in our writing isn’t always just about our writing. ; )

Seth Stone
Seth Stone
8 years ago

That is an awesome article, Dave.  You give some great tips for novice authors or those who are trying to be authors.  Too many times we don’t see an author’s true voice appear until they’ve been published a few times.

Dreamhand
Reply to  Seth Stone
8 years ago

Thanks, Seth… glad you enjoyed the article.  And I agree, it often takes some time to find that authority and confidence in your writing.  So much of it is just the layering of experience and affirmation and the discovery that “Wow… I CAN do this.”  That fascinating thing for me is the constant evolution of that “voice”.  The most dedicated writers are constantly striving to refine their expression, striving to make the most initmate connection with their readers possible.

Polgara
Polgara
7 years ago

Finding and expressing your own voice doesn’t just apply to fantasy or even just to fiction writing.  Even when writing non-fiction, you must be able to bring yourself into the work and let your personality, opinions and value affect the work.

Codey Amprim
Codey Amprim
8 years ago

Having trouble with mine as of recent. I feel mine is too cut and dry, and not as personal as I would like it to be. I think a more personal level makes the fantasy world more believable.

Ashley 'Damei' Thiessen
Ashley 'Damei' Thiessen
8 years ago

No. 🙁

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