Writer’s Voice — What It Is, and How to Find It

writer's voice

Every now and then the concept of Writer’s Voice comes up for discussion here on the writing forums of Mythic Scribes – actually, let’s just call it voice. As with so many other things in writing, it seem there aren’t definite rules for voice. It’s just another one of those things where you wing it and go with what feels good – sort of…

I don’t have an answer for what you need to do to find and develop your voice. That’s individual. Personal. Only you can find your own voice.

Instead, I’m going to share my own experiences and thoughts on the topic. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting, perhaps it’ll give you some ideas, or get you started on your own path.

What Is Voice?

One way of looking at it is to say that a writer’s voice is the feeling of their prose as you read it. Another is that it’s their storyteller personality shining through in the text.

It’s something that is unique to every writer, like a fingerprint. Sure, some writers like to keep their voice neutral, and that’s fine too. Even then you can probably pick out some little details that make their voice uniquely theirs.

In many ways, voice is about how you choose to express yourself as a writer. It’s in the words you use and how you string them together.

Do you like to construct your sentences in a certain way? Do you find that your descriptions follow certain patterns? Do your action scenes stick to the same kind of rhythm? If so, then that’s probably because of your voice.

If they don’t, well, then that may very well also be because of your voice. Like I mentioned at the start: it’s individual.

Another thing that’s perhaps a little bit less obvious, but which I think is also part of a writer’s voice is what you show the reader. When describing a scene or a person, what attributes do you choose to describe in detail, and what attributes do you skip, or gloss over?

I believe this is also a part of your voice as a writer: the world you show your reader.

How Did I Find My Voice?

Once upon a time… I wrote a novel. Or, well, I wrote the first draft of a novel and then nothing much happened with it. The important thing is I realized I ought to write some shorter stories to try and figure out what this whole writing thing really is about.

Writing shorts gave me the opportunity to start experimenting with storytelling and with other things – such as voice.

Ever since I started to write I’ve known that I wanted to achieve a distinct voice of my own. Writing a novel was good for me in many ways, but it didn’t help me much when it came to developing this voice I so wanted. Once the voice of the novel had settled in, I couldn’t start changing it up willy nilly just to see what happened (or maybe I could and just lacked the courage). I felt like it would be weird, like if you’re watching a movie and all of a sudden the main character is played by a different actor.

With short stories it’s different.

Writing a short story of just a few thousand words usually doesn’t take me more than a week or two. This gives me an opportunity to try out new things – like writing in present tense, or in a first person point of view, or in a new and exciting voice. I get to step outside my comfort zone for a little bit, but not for too long. It’s still kind of safe.

In addition to writing shorts I also spend quite a bit of time thinking about writing, and I don’t mean what to write, but how: What is the best way to communicate something to a reader? How do readers process the words they read? How do I put the image into my reader’s head with as few words as possible?

That last question is quite significant.

Just asking it tells me a little about my priorities as a writer. It’s significant for how I want to express myself. I want my reader to be able to picture what’s happening in the story, but I don’t want to use too many words. The way I tackled this turned out to affect my voice quite a lot.

At the moment, I feel like I’ve found a voice that I’m comfortable with. There are two things I did that helped me reach this point:

  1. Experiment with different kinds of writing.
  2. Analyse what I want my writing to be like.

Being comfortable with your voice is really important. It’s how you know you’ve found it. When the way you write feels natural to you, that’s your voice at the time. It’s kind of ironic how you might get to that point through trying out things that may at first seem unnatural.

Similarly, if you’re writing and suddenly discover that a sentence or a paragraph you just wrote doesn’t feel like you, then chances are it’s not in your voice. It’s quite fascinating when that happens.

Push It To The Limit

So what’s next? I’ve found a voice I enjoy and that feels natural to me. How do I take that further? Should I?

I think I should (so let’s skip that question).

As with so many other things, the way to improve is to do more.

I’m comfortable with my current voice, so I use it, and in using it I come across opportunities to try new and different things with it. That’s kind of the same as with everything else: practice, practice, and more practice.

What can I do to consciously push my voice to become even stronger and even more distinct?

The first step is to try and identify what my voice is, and what makes it mine.

The next step, well, that really is to just keep writing and writing and writing. However, while I write, I try to keep a lookout for situations where I can apply some aspect of my voice and push it to the extreme – just to see what happens.

For example, I’ve identified that something I often do is write a longer sentence and pair it with one or two very short ones, like this:

A big woman, probably in her mid fifties – not that anyone would ask – dressed in blue coveralls and a checkered flannel shirt. Brown hair.

The above description is a pretty typical example of how I might describe a person. The first sentence has twenty four words, and the second one two. Technically, the second one isn’t even a complete sentence – it’s just two words.

An example of pushing this particular thing to its extreme would be this paragraph:

And then the heat. Burning, searing heat, full of screams and shadows, and someone had told her not to worry and that she’d be safe and she’d wanted to believe but it had all been a lie and the pain hadn’t gone away and the shadows hadn’t stopped screaming and the hands that tore her flesh hadn’t let go and they would never let go and she couldn’t breathe and she would never see her sister again.

The first sentence has four words. The second one has seventy three. Sure, it’s an extreme example, but that’s the entire point. Push it as far as you can, and then dial it back a bit if (when) it gets silly.

Another thing I’ve identified is that rather than writing detailed descriptions I’m often trying to inspire images through association. I try to show the reader the basic scene and then give them a feeling of how to fill in the blanks on their own.

Here’s an example of basic situation where I’m employing this technique:

A new day is dawned, but a rain still falls. Under a tree, in a field, stands a cow. Alone. Cold. Damp. Water drips from leafs above.

The description as such isn’t very detailed, but it should give the reader enough hints for them to get a feel for what I’m trying to show them.

Taking this kind of description a few steps further I ended up with this paragraph:

The city stands silent and empty while the heavens wrap themselves around the world like a big grey nothing. This rain will fall forever – all through the afternoon and well into the evening. It’s a day best spent inside. Hot chocolate by the fireplace. Raindrops on the window pane.

Specifically, the bit about hot chocolate by the fireplace doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the way the city looks. However, it’s loaded with associations and it’ll steer the reader’s imagination in the right direction – at least that’s the theory.

I’ll keep on writing, I’ll keep on trying new things, and who knows where I’ll end up in the end.

Closing Words

All this analyzing and pondering worked for me. It may work for you, and it may not. What will work though, is to keep writing. If you just keep at it, you can’t help but establish a voice of your own. It may be distinct or it may be neutral, but it will be your own.

So if pondering your prose and tinkering with words isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Just keep writing. You’ll be fine.

Further Discussion

I asked in the third section if I should try and push my voice to the limit, and then I never answered that question. What do you think? Is there anything to gain by pushing yourself further once you’ve found a voice you’re comfortable with? It will probably change on its own over time anyway, so why try and force it?

What is writer’s voice to you? Do you agree with my description above, or do you feel I missed something out? Did I include too much?

How important is voice to you? Do (did?) you actively pursue one, or are you letting it come to you at its own pace?

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sarah evanston
6 years ago

After reading the article about voice and grammar, I had to come back and read this post. I think many of us struggle to find our own voice in our writing as we are constantly trying to create an interesting story for our readers and we become concerned about how our characters are represented. It takes a while to find our voice, but once we do, our writing becomes much easier.

6 years ago

Speaking your mind in the context of writing is what makes a writer a good writer. You can’t focus so much on what people would think. I think finding your voice has to do with not being afraid to express yourself and your appeal to each character in your book. Playing favorites, making the hero an enemy, and so on are things people tend to avoid in stories and I think they should be embraced.

Monique E. Carter
6 years ago

Write out exactly what you think. That’s what your true voice is. Your voice could even change for the rest of the story because your emotions were stirred.

6 years ago

To me, voice IS the author’s personality shining through his writing. Read Hemingway. Then read Erma Bombeck. If you can visualize the authors – tough, gruff, macho vs. exasperated, homey, wryly funny – if you can capture the essence of WHO THEY ARE and conjure up a vision of them in your head, then their voice is shining through. Some fiction authors try to obliterate any trace of “voice” – leaving it to non-fiction writers, humorists ,essayists, etc. in the mistaken belief that it will make their work more generic and thus more saleable. A big mistake, I think. Harper Lee’s voice shines through her work and her novel could not have been the world-shattering success that it was if this were not the case.

6 years ago

Thank you for your article. Your experience & insight is very helpful. I’ve always wanted to be a writer turning the sadness of my reality into humor. I do so once in a playwriting workshop and enjoyed it very much, including the brainstorming between my classmates & I. When monies ran out for writing workshops I became disappointed & pushed the thought of writing out of my head but it keeps coming back. I feel I need formal training, a conservatory but again money is an issue & the idea of going back to college drains me due that I have a Master’s (MPA 2015). You’ve inspired me to pick up the pen & do shorts since a novel seems to be over my head. Thanks to you & everyone else who replied with feedback!

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  Vee
6 years ago

Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you liked my article.

When it comes to writing, I think practice and experience are both very valuable. I don’t personally have any formal training in writing at all. Most of what I know about it, I’ve figured out by reading and writing on my own, and most importantly: by talking to other writers.
Sharing your thoughts and experiences with others has been really valuable to me. Also, asking others to read my short stories and comment on them, both from a technical and an artistic perspective has been incredibly helpful.

I think you’re on the right track though, if you’re thinking of starting to write short stories. It’s a great way to get some practice and it’s not such a time sink, so it doesn’t matter as much if the end result isn’t perfect. The important thing is to learn and grow. 🙂

6 years ago

On the contrary I never worried about my voice. It came all on it’s own as I wrote. I always go back and look over my last finished scene before I start a new one and this exercise, and the accompanying changes to the scene when there were sentences, descriptions which didn’t fit, gave me a baseline. Made the next scene on which I started feel coherent, a seamless whole.

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  Caden Skarka
6 years ago

Sounds like the right way to go about it – not worrying I mean. I was probably starting to worry about it way too early on.
Then once you’re comfortable writing and expressing yourself, then you can start tinkering with voice, if you want to.

Going back and reviewing scenes before starting on a new one also sounds like a good option. I’ve done that in order to “get in the mood” so to speak, but I try to avoid tinkering too much with it or I’ll get stuck editing. Re-reading the previous scene before starting on the next one is probably a good piece of advice overall though. 🙂

Nils Ödlund
6 years ago

Thanks for your comment. I think your experience may be similar to mine. I also struggled a bit with it at the start, but as I grew more used to writing regularly, things started to become more clear and voice became less of an issue – until I started focusing on it again that is. 🙂

As for blogging, yes, different beast. Also, my posts about baking always seem to get a lot more hits than the ones about writing.

6 years ago

‘Voice’ was something I grappled with a bit when I first started writing, and it was a common point for critique with critique partners. Now, after practice, I don’t even think about it. I do think it’s linked to character though. The voice of a novel, chapter or scene is kind of filtered through the POV characters. So you have to get into their heads. But as you point out, it’s the author’s voice that determines what descriptions and actions are conveyed, and in how much detail.

Now, blogging is a whole different game, and I’m still working on the blogging voice!

Reply to  Aderyn Wood
6 years ago

Very good point, Aderyn. My fiction-writing voice and my blogging voice are worlds apart. My academic writing voice is also completely different.

Reply to  Antonio del Drago
6 years ago

Struggling with my own, I would love to see (or rather read) how your voice, Antonio, changes through the media you mentioned. Would you be kind enough to point me to your pages?