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Thread: Identifying Writer's Voice

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Identifying Writer's Voice

    Hey all,

    I've been hearing an awful lot about writer's voice - its importance and its difficulty in developing. I was just wondering how do you identify your own writer's voice, and then how do you develop it?

  2. #2
    reading all the things Anna Iguana's Avatar
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    A writer's voice might include her syntax, word choices, pacing, themes and topics that preoccupy her... almost anything. Just write whatever you want to write. The more you write, the more consistent certain aspects of your writing will become. Your voice will emerge.

  3. #3
    Scribe of the girls in the basement Marissa D's Avatar
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    For me, identifying an individual writer's voice is like recognizing the composer of a piece of music you've never heard before--you don't the piece, but you know at once it's by Bach or Haydn or whoever, just by the way the notes are chosen and put together and the instruments chosen to play them. A writer's voice is similar--it's the way s/he uses words to tell a story that s/he has to tell. Others may think differently, but my feeling is that voice isn't something you necessarily consciously develop--it's something that happens through experience, the more you write. So the more you write, the more your individual voice will come through.

  4. #4
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    I don't think a voice is hard to develop. That's simply a way of saying how you put things in terms of tone, word usage, general sentence length and structure etc. It's an element of who you are and how you communicate. It will likely vary somewhat with mood and with situation, but there's probably a baseline that most of us have that is going to be different from other individuals. It's the way we express our personality when we speak and write. I think it's something that will resolve itself as one writes without obsessing over it.

    The hard part, imo, is leaving one's personal voice behind, or at least quieting one's own voice, when we're writing fiction from the viewpoint of a character. Many novels are written in first person or in limited third, where the narrative would be in the voice of a pov character. It's also not uncommon to have more than one viewpoint character in a novel. Having every character's dialog and narrative sound the same would be problematic. Even so, there will be ways you go about doing this that will differ from how other writers do.

    The idea that developing a voice is this sacred, and very hard, chore each writer must undertake via conscious deliberation? It leaves me scratching my head.

    Also puzzling are the pieces of advice that seem paradoxically determined to kill voice and personality in writing. For instance, insisting that it's always best to use the simplest words necessary to say something, or to keep sentences uniformly short and simple, and to never have anything in a sentence that is unnecessary for conveying bare-bones denotation.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 08-30-2017 at 04:34 AM.
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  5. #5
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SheridanEF View Post
    ...how do you develop it?
    Well, you already have a 'writer's voice'. Each of us does, in the same way we have a unique personality. If you already have a voice, then all you need to worry about is focusing on the technical skills of writing and storytelling.
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  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Your "writer' voice" is simply the collective of all the elements you put into your writing -- the subject, themes, style, perspective, syntax, word choice, pacing, tics, etc. -- that in combination mark a work as yours and not someone else's. It emerges naturally from your writing. As you write more, with more confidence, your "voice" becomes more distinct. You develop it by writing as well as you can in everything you write, and writing enough so that you move past the stage of emulation and imitation that all writers go through as part of learning the craft.

    Voice is an emergent property of writing.

    It's not really a thing you should worry about doing -- it's a thing that happens by itself. By the time you reach the level of technical control where you can deliberately shape your "voice," you already have one, and it's yours.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by SheridanEF View Post
    Hey all,

    I've been hearing an awful lot about writer's voice - its importance and its difficulty in developing. I was just wondering how do you identify your own writer's voice, and then how do you develop it?
    Don't know from where or whom you've been hearing that but it's not something to worry about.

    Your 'voice' is basically that overall 'something' about what you write and/or how you write that suggests to someone else that it is 'you' who wrote it. It will most likely alter as you gain experience, but it's not something to worry about at all.
    Everything yields to treatment.

  8. #8
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    If people say your writing lacks voice, they mean exactly that--the *writing* isn't conveying it well. Not that you don't have one.

    All about making yourself heard.
    "Though one evil spirit may drive a woman out of Eden, all the devils in hell cannot drive Heaven out of a woman."

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  9. #9
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    "Also puzzling are the pieces of advice that seem paradoxically determined to kill voice and personality in writing. For instance, insisting that it's always best to use the simplest words necessary to say something, or to keep sentences uniformly short and simple, and to never have anything in a sentence that is unnecessary for conveying bare-bones denotation. "

    On another, similar site to this, the moderators seemed to be in cahoots with the idea that Hemingway's example of 'no sentence longer than 20 - 25 words' was some sort of rule or law all writers must follow to be considered worthy. Lee Child, in his Reacher series, does this very well (and successfully), but he also breaks that rule from time to time. Seems to me that simple words and bare-bones sentences are good, but maybe should be a guide rather than a rule. Otherwise, all voices would be on the same 4-4 time.

  10. #10
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mongo View Post
    "Also puzzling are the pieces of advice that seem paradoxically determined to kill voice and personality in writing. For instance, insisting that it's always best to use the simplest words necessary to say something, or to keep sentences uniformly short and simple, and to never have anything in a sentence that is unnecessary for conveying bare-bones denotation. "

    On another, similar site to this, the moderators seemed to be in cahoots with the idea that Hemingway's example of 'no sentence longer than 20 - 25 words' was some sort of rule or law all writers must follow to be considered worthy. Lee Child, in his Reacher series, does this very well (and successfully), but he also breaks that rule from time to time. Seems to me that simple words and bare-bones sentences are good, but maybe should be a guide rather than a rule. Otherwise, all voices would be on the same 4-4 time.
    Do you know how much music is written in 4/4 time? Hint: most of it. Or 3/4 time. The more complex the time signature, the less frequently it's used. Not because there's something wrong with it, but it's not as familiar to listeners, and it takes more skill to write in those signatures.

    Books and author/writer voice are much the same. The vast majority of us will start off with what is common and, over time, add little embellishments, but not necessarily dive into the most esoteric rhythms. Even Hemingway, with his pared down and simplistic prose is so spare that few people can really effectively do what he did.

    For me, I did a lot of experimenting with voice to develop my own. I actively and consciously played with style and word choice. (Present tense, past tense, first person, third person, short and staccato vs long and intricate.) Most of us will find that the best voice for the stories we tell is not all one of kind, but a mix of these various beats and riffs. Long and short mixed together. Big words used when they are necessary to draw attention to a particular idea or moment or character development. Shorter ones when the pace demands we not linger on the page.

    Deciding which elements to use where means not just understanding how each thing functions, but being able to intuitively use those elements to best effect. (Maybe not in the first draft, but in revisions and edits.) You figure that out by writing a lot. By experimenting with what you're doing. What does it feel like to try and write like Joyce? Like O'Connor? Like Wilde? Like King? As you experiment you will find that certain things come naturally to you, feel more comfortable, and those will form the foundation for your voice as an author.
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  11. #11
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Emma Darwin (This Itch of Writing) talks about short and long sentences. She has a good line about how the basic premise is to keep the action moving, but for her, a long sentence can do that just as well or better. Short sentences stop and start, so can halt a narrative, while a long sentence can carry you forward through the narrative.
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  12. #12
    Old Hand in the Biz Barbara R.'s Avatar
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    You just write a lot, and sooner or later a "house style" emerges, which is what other people will call your "voice." It's one of the few things in writing, IMO, that you don't have to work on or think about. Happens all by itself.

  13. #13
    Herder of Hamsters AW Admin's Avatar
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    What you're really talking about when you say "voice," in more precise language is style.

    Style derives from syntax and word-choice; sentence length and rhythm is part of that.

    Teresa Nelsen Hayden says "Style is what you can't help doing."

    As a writer, it's good to be able to control your style, to change it a will, not only for different kinds of writing, but, if you're writing fiction or drama or poetry, for different characters and their dialog.

  14. #14
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mongo View Post
    Seems to me that simple words and bare-bones sentences are good, but maybe should be a guide rather than a rule.
    It seems to me that the best guideline one could follow is to be clear and to tell the story according to one's own style and voice and facility with language. Sentence length has very little to do with that. There are many wonderful writers who don't adhere to simple words and bare-bones sentences, so I think to focus on that as some kind of gold standard is to miss the point entirely. (Speaking in general here, not to you specifically.)

  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW JoB42's Avatar
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    I do think consideration needs to be given to voice. Which is to say I think it's important for a storyteller to give consideration to what he or she sounds like. That's what voice is, really. The sound and style of the individual telling the story.

    You're in a room with four friends. They all try to tell you about what happened last night. Each is telling the same story, but each has a different way of expressing what they're saying. One friend might be funny, another might be just-the-facts. A third friend might ruin the whole story, and the fourth friend might provide some sort of somber insight. Everyone has a different voice. You notice this in basic social interactions. You know which "voices" you prefer to hear stories from. The voices you like probably highlight important details and speak with clarity. The voices you don't like probably mumble or forget details or jump around the story in confusing ways that leave you with questions. All of these voices developed naturally, sure. It just happens that you want to listen to some of them and not others.

    The same is true of writing. Writers have different voices, and while yes, I agree that those voices develop naturally, I still think they should be considered, nurtured, and often open to change. But all of this is a way of saying that I think your voice is informed not only by your personal taste, but also by the things you learn about the art of the craft. This is storytelling. It's communication. I'm going to hear what you're saying in my head, and what I really want is to fall into your story. To do that, (as a reader) I need you to keep the story moving, describe what's seen, describe what's smelled and felt and heard, and to do all this with enough concrete language that I feel like I'm grounded in something visceral, but never overwhelmed. Your characters have to feel real and alive because I want to care about them. You have to know how long to keep me in a scene, when to heighten the tension, and when to shift the mood without jarring me out of the experience. It's a great and complicated juggling act, to be sure, but I think it's important to note that there's not just one right way to do it. Neither is there one wrong way to do it. What's important is that you have to know what effect your creating inside of me (your reader), and you have to stay ahead of me. You're leading me into your world and telling me your story.

    What you have on your side is that the reader wants to enjoy your story and wants to be able to trust you. What you have against you is that the reader has been burned before and is not always so quick to trust. Giving the reader reason to trust you all starts with your voice.

  16. #16
    Old Hand in the Biz Barbara R.'s Avatar
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    [[What's important is that you have to know what effect your creating inside of me (your reader), and you have to stay ahead of me. You're leading me into your world and telling me your story.

    What you have on your side is that the reader wants to enjoy your story and wants to be able to trust you. What you have against you is that the reader has been burned before and is not always so quick to trust. Giving the reader reason to trust you all starts with your voice.]]

    Good point, Jo. Some voices are trustworthy and give the reader confidence that whatever happens, this will be a story well-told. Others make you hesitate to take the trip at all, because you're not sure you trust the driver.

    And I do see your point about nurturing and developing that voice. One can imagine Mark Twain editing his own work toward that end; nothing more effortful than an easy, "effortless" voice. I guess I don't think of that sort of honing as pertaining to voice in particular but to writing as a whole. I think of voice as being akin to theme, in that it works best when it arises naturally from the story rather than being imposed on the story.

  17. #17
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    It is true that a writer's voice can develop naturally, and often does.

    But as a reader and a magazine editor, I can say that some voices are more persuasive than others. When we open the first page of a story or novel, some make us want to read more, others don't.

    And while some of this is an amalgamation of years of writing and storytelling experience, at other points it is the narrative voice of that particular story. It is important to separate both when thinking about voice--the narrative voice emerges from the character, the writer's voice is the author.

    A long time ago, a tutor told me I should deliberately copy a few authors I admire-- take one of my stories, and emulate that author as much as possible. He said that those authors that I like are closest to my natural voice, only they have more years of craft behind them. I was then to forget about the exercises, and write my own stories. I did see a change in my writing after that exercise.

    A few exercises from this book also helped.
    Last edited by AcaciaNeem; 09-28-2017 at 05:02 AM.

  18. #18
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Your voice is the one you use when your ego goes away. The one you use when no one is looking. The one when you know someone could do it better, smarter, quicker and will tell you so -- and then use it anyway. Your voice is the very thing that makes you you.

  19. #19
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    If people say your writing lacks voice, they mean exactly that--the *writing* isn't conveying it well. Not that you don't have one.

    All about making yourself heard.
    Sometimes it also means that the voice of the characters aren't coming through. This is particularly important if one is writing in a character-referenced viewpoint, such as first or limited third, but even in omniscient, where the external narrator's voice dominates, the characters' voices should come through in dialog and in direct thoughts. This can be the most challenging part of "voice," imo. It comes from really knowing who your characters are. I don't mean the kind of knowing that involves spreadsheets filled with a character's hobbies, childhood pets, and favorite foods or colors. A writer needs to internalize their characters' opinions, attitudes and temperament and the way it would influence their speech and thoughts.

    It's definitely true that some voices are more interesting than others. This can be subjective. One reader might like a snarky, irreverent narrator, while another might think it's annoying and prefers a more formal, or even a self-effacing, tone. We have certain styles of personal communication we find more entertaining, likeable and amusing in real life too. I know someone who says he wants to punch people who use the word "whom," in a sentence, even if it's done correctly, while my mom can't help jumping into correct someone if they use "who" incorrectly in any context (she refuses to accept that "whom" died in informal speech a long time ago and is now falling out of formal usage too).

    I'd love to see the "whom" puncher and my mom meet someday. My money is on mom.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 09-28-2017 at 11:03 PM.
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    practical experience, FTW Maze Runner's Avatar
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  21. #21
    practical experience, FTW Tazlima's Avatar
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    The term "voice" really says it all. Consider your voice-voice (as opposed to your writer-voice). When you speak, you don't have to consciously decide what range and pitch the words take. You open your mouth and the sound emerges.

    From a vocal perspective, "developing your voice," typically refers to honing your singing ability, but the voice is already there before you start. A voice teacher can't (and wouldn't try to) turn a soprano into a bass. You take a soprano voice and polish it into a better soprano voice. You start with a bass and make it the bassiest bass ever. There are other ways of honing vocal skills besides singing, of course. Perhaps you want to learn to project so you can give a speech, or you want to gain or lose a particular accent. Learning a new language might qualify as well. These would be the equivalent of learning to "speak in the voice of the character." But even when you're doing that, your voice is still your own. If you call to a friend in another room, they'll recognize your voice and know it's you, right? You don't have to do a thing to make it appear and, again much like singing, the more you use it, the more you sing (or write), the better it will sound.

    Nothing to sweat at all!
    Last edited by Tazlima; 09-29-2017 at 03:55 AM.
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