Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing Advice: What Is Voice?

Most writers, and even a lot of non-writers, presumably, have come across the term “voice” and understand the gist of it. But how would you best define it, especially in comparison with sound and tone?

In the comments section of last week's post on tone, Dave of Route 19Writers pointed me to a fantastic post by Cynthia Chapman, this one written on voice – or authorial voice, as she describes it. In this post, she lays out a great definition of what voice is, with references to both sound and tone:
“An author's voice is usually the writer's natural tone, rhythm, and choice of words. To put it more poetically – a reflection of the writer's soul. A writer's voice is unique to each person, which is why the same story can be told in different ways by different people. In comparison, a character's voice is crafted by the writer to fit a certain character in the story.”

First of all, as this definition explains, there are two types of voice: authorial voice and character voice. Your sound and tone, both of which are contained within voice, will be natural for you – that's for authorial voice. But if you are telling your story in a character's voice, then the sound and tone of it will be the natural writing style of that character. And that's for you to craft and work out.

But how do sound and tone actually differ from voice?

As I mentioned above, sound is an aspect of voice. But your voice (whether authorial or character) will not only include, but also and determine your sound. It will naturally dictate your word choice and the way you fit words and sentences together.

Tone is all about intentionality, the attitude with which the narrator addresses the reader. Once again, voice is all about the overall effect, the general way the story is told, and tone is simply an aspect of that.

And what about finding your voice? The simple answer to that question is that it can't be done – it's impossible. You can't loose your voice, so you can't find it. It exists as soon as you write your first word. My five-year-old writing-self had a voice. My friends who only write 250 creative words each year because school forces them to have voices. Even their five-year-old selves had voices.

But you can develop your voice. For character voice, you need to learn that character inside and out. Take on their thoughts and opinions. When you write as them, you become them. For authorial voice, there's only one option: write. The more you write, the more you grow as a writer, the more your voice matures. That's the best way to develop your voice.

Needless to say, this is another excuse to write as much as you can. But then again, most of us don't need excuses, do we?


  1. Nope, I don't need an excuse I just need time. This horrible thing called life keeps getting in the way of solid writing time. That an fatigue. Another terrible thing that stops me writing.

    I was wondering how tone influenced authorial voice, and you made that very clear thanks. I really wondered how your author voice could stay the same when the whole tone of a story changes. Now I see the author voice never does. Thanks for showing me this.

  2. It baffles me how much some people get into things like 'discovering their voice.' Like you said, it's something you have regardless. Perhaps they mean more along the lines of practicing and refining their voice, but the terminology gets at me.

    I think voice is quite basically, how you write. It doesn't magically appear on the page one morning.

  3. I agree with the other commenters, your voice is just there, and while your writing can get better with practice, to try to alter your voice would be unnatural. The thing that intrigues me is the character voice - I guess how different it is from yours is a mark of how well developed that character is.

  4. "To find your voice, you must inhale the scents of the cannabis plant, cast off your outer inhibitions of a superficial society, and roam the wilds for 40 days and nights in search of the mystical Authorial Voice Fairy who will then gift you with amazing and unparalleled insight into your own being, and through that, the world."

    "Sounds cool, man. Pass the cannabis." ;)

    Why all this anxiety over voice? Just write. Voice will come out on its own. Yeesh.

    1. Just to clarify -- that last sentence could sound like it was directed at this post. It wasn't. I was just talking about people who worry about voice too much. :)

  5. Very insightful. I would add, though, that I think one can loose one's voice, or at least have it altered or blunted. For writers who are ambitious or who, anyway, seek publication in a professional capacity, there is a balance between trying to be marketable and staying true to oneself that has to be struck. Sometimes the desire for publication and/or the fear of not "being good enough" can steer people away from their voice. It's something I've seen, or seen potential for, in some of the workshop groups I belong to.
    However, it sounds like you don't need to worry about that, which is excellent.

  6. Very insightful and quite well put. I would just add, though, that I think it is possible to loose your voice, or leastways to loose touch with it. I've been participating in various writers forums online for a number of years. For writers who are actively seeking professional publication, there is a balance, mentally, that has to be struck between your voice and identity as a storyteller and the wants of the market. I have seen where some folks, driven by those desires or by fears that they aren't "good enough", do things that I feel may distance them from their own voice.
    However, that doesn't seem to be a problem for you, which is excellent.

  7. Apologies for the double post, blogspot doesn't like me much. Probably in league with Steerpike's monkey.

  8. Good points!

    Voice is vital, because depending on the type of point of view you're utilizing, you have to make sure that you stay true to your characters. The readers should subliminally know each character's voice. Making that distinction makes the book not only easier to follow, but helps the reader immerse themselves in the story.

  9. Imogen: Ah, life. Yes, it does get in the way sometimes. I have to work on motivating myself to write a bit more, especially when I'm stuck. And no worries :) I'm glad you took something out of this post :)

    McKenzie: Yep, I think you're right about that. The terminology stinks. Refining and developing you voice into something worth reading is way more important than "finding" it (if such thing exists).

  10. Nick: Character voice is a bit of an art, I think. It's great to read, because you feel like the character is talking straight to you. When you read authorial voice, it's all about the story.

    Laura: Hahaha, voice is definitely something natural. The more we write the more readable our voices become. That's all there is to it :)

    Justin: Thank you :) That's a good point, actually, which I haven't thought about before. Shunning your voice sounds a bit extreme; I'm glad it isn't an issue for too many people.

    Jay: Thanks :) Exactly. It's inconsistent to tell the story from one character's POV, and then in the same way from another's. Defining different character voices (and authorial voice from character voice) is one of the things that make writing an art form.


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