Once upon a time, I was an assistant chef. I worked at a small but busy restaurant with the head chef, a few helpers, dishwashers, and about a dozen servers.
For breaks and meals, everyone kicked back in a little storage room just off the kitchen. A big table and folding chairs made it our dining room, and we had a lot of fun. But I also had to use that room for supplies, and it was always a mess.
One day, completely disgusted with dirty dishes, cups, newspapers, and a swarm of flies, I cleaned it all up until it sparkled. Then I tacked up a poster with an announcement that went something like this:
Don’t bother asking the cooks for food if you can’t clean up after yourself.
Put your trash in the trash can and your dirty dishes in the dish bin!
Later that day, the manager stopped by and laughed when he saw my poster. “You write just like you talk,” he said.
“I hope it works,” I replied. And I laughed, too.
But I thought, Well, duh. Of course. How else would I write?
Since then, I’ve learned that there’s more to your writer’s voice than writing the way you talk, especially since you talk differently in different situations. Your voice is actually a reflection of your entire personality, including your speech patterns. And you can have more than one voice and create voices specifically for your characters if you write fiction.
Let’s take a look.
Attitude, tone, and personal style are part of a writer’s voice
Your personality comes out in your writing. Even if you use many voices (and I don’t mean multiple personalities), they’re still created by attitude, tone, and personal style.
Attitude is about emotion, values, and beliefs. It has to do with how you regard the world and life in general or how you feel about someone or something.
Attitude reveals itself in the way you talk, your body language, and your actions. And your attitude is part of what shapes your writing voice.
Tone of voice in your writing is similar to tone of voice while talking. It’s not what you say—the facts—but how you say it (or write it). And that’s influenced by your attitude.
“Bring me a flippin’ cup of coffee already, will you?” He slammed his fist on the table.
“Can I get a cup of coffee, please?” He smiled up at her.
Big difference, wouldn’t you say?
Imagine other tones of voice that someone might use when asking for a cup of coffee. Write them down as a little exercise. How many can you come up with? Which one sounds most like you?
Just like a spoken tone of voice, your mental tone of voice—and underlying attitude—will be apparent in your writing voice. If it’s a strong voice, though, it won’t vary according to your mood or the day’s events unless you want it to. But it will always have a certain tone that reflects your overall attitude.
Personal style is revealed with vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and the more technical aspects of writing. But it also involves who you are and your personal taste or preferences.
Do you enjoy explaining things in minute detail? Or do you see the big picture and prefer to use general descriptions and lists?
Do you use elaborate, flowery language? Or are you more direct and to the point? What about slang and swearing?
Every part of your personality influences your writer’s voice, and sometimes you’re not even aware of it. But you can hone and polish your voice to bring out those parts that you want to emphasize and limit the parts you’d rather not reveal.
Writers can create and develop a particular voice
Contrary to what you might have read or heard, a writer’s voice is learned more than it’s “found” or “discovered.” And just as you can learn a new language, you can create a particular writing voice.
Stephen King, in On Writing, describes a process that I went through as a writer in college.
You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.
Just as King says, I wrote a short story while immersed in an early American literature class, and it’s a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. And it’s definitely cringeworthy.
I’ll bet most writers have gone through a similar stage as they develop their writing voices. But the cool part is this: if you want to develop a different voice for a different purpose, you can recall those early days when you were a sponge for other styles and voices. Soak it up on demand.
Developing a different writing voice for a certain type of writing is not only possible but desirable. I could re-write that short story I wrote in a more modern voice, like the one you’re hearing right now. Or I could intentionally create a setting that’s solidly circa 1840 and a voice that goes with it.
The best way to develop a voice from the 1840s or any other bygone era is to immerse yourself in writing of that time period. You’ll also want to look up specific information about language patterns of the time and make lists of terms and phrases to use (and what not to use).
And practice your new writing voice until you’re consistent and confident.
No doubt Anita Shreve, who wrote All He Ever Wanted (2003), did exactly that to achieve the “slightly pedantic and fussy” voice of her main character and narrator, Nicholas Van Tassel. Set in the 1930s, the narrator’s turn-of-the-century diction can be difficult to follow until you get used to it.
But just as with a writer’s main voice, an alternate writing voice will still reflect the writer’s own style and personality. Just as you might speak or write with a second or third language, it’s still your voice, even though it sounds different.
Writers can use many voices in one piece of writing
The personality telling the story or providing information in an article is the writer’s main voice. You’re “hearing” my writing voice right now.
But within that piece of writing (particularly fiction), other voices might share the storytelling spotlight. Their voices also identify them in dialogue (if any).
Take Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, for example. It’s written in the first person—as told by the main character, Bella—but over the course of four long novels, many characters engage in extensive dialogue. And at certain points, various characters take over the storytelling.
Jacob, for example, narrates about one-third of the final novel, Breaking Dawn. Rosalie gets a chance to tell her story in Eclipse, and Jasper tells his as well. Other stories are told by other characters, each with their own distinctive voice.
Even if you only saw the movies, think back. How does Jacob talk? Edward? Bella? Edward’s father, Carlisle? Bella’s dad, Charlie? Jacob’s dad? Bella’s mom?
The voices are easy to hear in the writing:
- Jacob uses a lot of slang. He’s direct, to the point, often sarcastic, and rough around the edges.
- Edward speaks formally and uses old-fashioned expressions which reflect his time of birth: the early 1900s.
- Bella’s mom sounds like a giddy high school student, which reflects her “erratic, harebrained” personality.
- Chatterbox Jessica makes snide, sarcastic remarks. She’s judgmental and gossipy.
- Introverted, awkward Bella as the narrator relates the story in a steady, consistent voice. But in dialogue, Bella’s voice shifts back and forth from hesitant and immature to smart and savvy, like anyone in her late teens. Finally, a stronger, more mature and polished voice emerges.
Of course all the voices and the narration are written by one writer, Stephenie Meyer.
Her writing has been criticized—and it seems most people either love or hate the story—but I wouldn’t mind having my first novel turn out to be such a success. Still, even though I can see where improvements could be made, her voice is strong and consistent.
How can you develop your voice?
Whether you’re writing fiction (as in short stories or novels) or non-fiction (as in articles or blog posts), your voice develops with time. Whether it’s deliberate learning or not, if you keep on writing, you’ll eventually develop a voice that’s yours and yours alone.
Stephen King points out:
The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to read a lot. And write a lot. There’s really no other way to do it.
And while you’re reading, notice the writer’s voice. Here are a few writers with very distinctive, strong voices:
Joan Otto at Man vs. Debt
A few tips:
1. Read widely, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, magazines, novels, blogs—just read. And don’t read only the kind of stuff you write; read it all. If you’re a business writer, read fantasy fiction or sci-fi, for example.
2. Let go of fear; it can block your voice. I’ve known new writers who write beautifully in email or forum posts, but they freeze up when it’s time to write an article. Write your rough draft like nobody will ever see it. Just let go, and let go of perfection. Then go back to edit.
3. Let your personal style shine. The more you write, the more your style emerges and becomes consistent. Do you swear a lot? Swear in your writing. Use slang? Write it. Have a few foreign expressions you like? Use them. Or not. It’s all up to you.
4. Check your drafts for consistency, repetition, and rhythm. Is attitude and tone similar throughout? Are words or phrases repeated unnecessarily? (Don’t hesitate to use a thesaurus.) And if you stumble while reading your own writing, work on that section until it rolls off your tongue naturally. You do read out loud while editing, don’t you? Please say yes.
5. Make sure you’re confident of the basics like grammar and punctuation. When you know how to put any kind of sentence together correctly—or fix it while editing—you’ll feel free to experiment and let loose with everything else.
Using your natural speaking voice in a blurb on a poster is easy. So are emails or social media updates and other casual writing situations. But developing a consistent writer’s voice and using it over and over again in your writing is a different story.
It’s nothing to worry about, though, because your voice develops naturally. But it won’t develop if you don’t give yourself ample learning opportunities (reading) and if you don’t practice using your voice by writing.
What about you? How have you developed your voice or what challenges have you had so far? I love comments, so feel free to share.