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. It’s a lot like a professional singer’s singing voice.
Tone of voice in your writing is similar to tone of voice while talking (or singing). 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 different types 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, just like a singer’s. 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:
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.
Comments are always welcome.
Photo credit: Prayitno
I’m about to start witing some posts and short articles for my fashion blog, that I want to launch next month. And I’m just blocked. Really, I have a huge fear that people will not read what a write and this will make me feel bad. I know that this is just something that my mind tells me and I can’t know how people (women most af all) will act, but I just can’t stop thinking this way. Do you have a tinny recommendation for me?
Anyway, thank you for what you share here about writing, I like your posts and tips 🙂
Oh, and please excuse my spelling and grammar errors (Enclish is the third language for me, but I really wanted to live a comment for you).
The best way to get started is to just get started! Every writer starts off not being very sure of themselves, including me. As you go along, you get better and better, and your confidence grows. And it might be awhile before you stop thinking that way, but the only way to stop feeling worried and thinking worried or fearful thoughts is to just do it anyway. That builds confidence and helps you develop your skills. Plus they’re just thoughts, after all 🙂 Maybe you can’t make them go away but you can take action whether you have them or not!
Nice to hear from you! And don’t worry about spelling or grammar errors in comments. As long as I can read it, I don’t care. Your blog posts are a different story–proofread carefully there 🙂
Hey, thank you for just being so nice to me and encouraging!
Have a great weekend, Leah! I’ll read your posts, just to get more inspiration and confidence 🙂
And a great weekend to you too! And the cool thing about confidence is that it’s like a seed: it grows when we water it 😀
This topic is so important so it was great to read your post. And thanks for including me on the list! Also, I had never read Erika Napoletano and her voice is so strong it just pops off the page. Thank you for the recommendation.
You’re welcome. Erika’s voice is pretty amazing. It’s kind of like yours but with a lot more embellishment 🙂
Nice to see you.
Thank you so much for this article! It was so helpful. 🙂
I’ve been wondering a lot about what kind of writing voice to use as I’ve experimented with a few, but haven’t really developed one that’s really my own. I love to write and really want to develop this skill. I mainly write scifi/fantasy/horror but I’d love to try to write other things. I will definitely pass this along to others. 😀
~A high school student 🙂
For years I was told by a significant person in my life that they don’t listen because my style is to draw them into what I am saying and keep their attention. That person wants 25 or words or less–facts only and in as few words as possible. Now I am struggling with finding my voice (it has been stifled for so long). Thanks for this post. I am a writer. I want my listener or reader to become involved and keep their attention. I want to touch lives with my writings.
Hi there, Sorry to hear you’ve had so much discouragement. Keep writing! Maybe keep a journal, and write every day. Your voice will come back, and it will be stronger than ever. It’s all about practice. Maybe think if you had been a piano player, and you weren’t able to play for a long time. If you get started again, you might not sound all that great, but it will come, and you’ll get better and better as you learn new tricks and methods for involving your reader and holding their attention. Just keep going! 🙂
I haven’t REALLY written in years…okay since college and that was some time ago. Recently I have begun to write again. First starting with a daily journal and then a blog. I started the blog with the hopes that I would get enough practice to find my writing voice which I assumed would be very different from my melodramatic journaling voice. However, after about 5 posts I froze up. I wasn’t sure if any of the posts sounded like me and I became a little discouraged. Today I found myself inspired to write another post. While writing I once again found myself wondering if it was “MY” writing voice or was I hearing another author’s voice in my head. I tend to think the latter. So I decided to search for more info regarding how to find your writing voice. My actual google search was “Is your writing voice the same as your speaking voice.” This led me to your post, which I am extremely grateful for. I have read Anne Lamott, Ann Patchett, and numerous others’ advice on writing but still didn’t quite understand the writing voice aspect of it. But your simple advice to keep practicing and keep reading and it will eventually come, was the best I have heard so far and exactly what I needed. I’ve also heard to write like you would be writing to your best friend. Would you agree with that statement? Thank you in advance for any time you take to read this and/or reply.
Starting a blog is a great move, and it’s exactly what I would advise you to do. A journal is another good one–great practice! As for you freezing up: very normal. But about “your” writing voice or another author’s, I think it’s kinda like this:
Think of who you are as an entire person. All your skills, attitudes, traits, quirks, cool stuff you do, or stuff you’re not so proud of. Everything about you. Sure, it’s you. But it’s also a blend of your upbringing, social influences, and any number of things that shape our personalities, even the stars you were born under if you believe in astrology.
Your writer’s voice is like that too. It’s yours, no matter what stage of writer “maturity” you’re at. But it’s a blend of influences, too. And sure, you might have some other writer in the back of your head. That’s OK. But as you grow, your writing will become more and more distinctively your own.
I think the advice to write like you’re writing to your best friend is great, to an extent. But it depends what you’re writing. It’s great for blog writing IF your readers (or the readers you want to reach) are well-represented by your best friend. Common advice for professional blog writing is actually very close: write with someone in mind who is your ideal reader or “audience” (or your client’s ideal audience if you’re a freelancer). It helps to make it more personal and conversational. Plus, most of us express things differently for different people–you don’t talk the same way to young kids as you would adults, for example. In your case (I took a quick look at your blog), I think writing with your best friend in mind would be great.
Keep practicing and keep reading, for sure. Try different kinds of writer’s voices. Do you talk differently with your closest friends? “Outer circle” friends and acquaintances? With your parents or relatives? On the job? While traveling? While at a party having a few drinks and dancing (or other fun social event)? Try to identify aspects of your various spoken voices (I’m assuming they differ) and practice writing in those voices. Write as if you’re an angry teenage version of yourself. Write as you might have spoken while falling in love or in some other strong emotional state. Write as…whatever part of yourself. Eventually it will merge into one main writer’s voice.
I hope that helps! And I’m glad you found the article helpful. 🙂
Hi leah, prashant here from Mumbai .accidently I have seen your comments during my search for “how to find writing voice ” on Google.you writing is encouraging, motivating and have enough nutritional content, that help others including me for writing healthy .I don’t know what I am writing and how my sentence structure is buy my intent of practicing is clear enough because YOUR words given a ray of hope to believe in my gut .will wait for your next word
Hey Leah, thanks for the nice tips. I started writing little late in life at 38. But better late than never. Have been on it for last three years. As you said, I see my voice developing gradually !
You’re welcome, Ashutosh!Keep at it 🙂
Psst… It’s never too late. Writing sometimes needs to wait.
What about Daniel Harder/Lemony Snicket who wrote the Series of Unfortunate events? What attitude developed his voice?
An enjoyable and great way to develop voice is to, one, just decide what you like. What authors’ voices appeal to you? Hemingway and Nabokov, while quite different ‘vocal textures’ (and Nabokov really didn’t like Hemingway – ha!) are appealing voices to me. The uncomplicated evocations of Hemingway; and the nigh-to inimitable richness of Nabokovian poetry make great start points, whenever I sit to pen something. Let the inspiration form within you a fire that will move your pen. Ape the sure hand of the master. (In time, try some new things out – find your voice). Aping starts by spending 15 or 20 minutes reading from your favorite author/s, before writing. Audiobooks make an excellent and readily digestible source of- of… of? Of-! Ah, let’s just call them “voice techniques,” with vocabulary, a new angle on how to capture THAT image, and also period expressions found in the trove of delightful stories available.
Enjoy the living heck out of whatever you do to find voice!
tanks for the nice article. I can’t write in english. But your article was very good.
Leah – I just stumbled across your blog and I absolutely love it. This post on developing your writer’s voice was especially helpful. I can’t wait to explore more. Thank you!
Welcome aboard! Glad it was helpful 🙂
Thanks for sharing this post Leah, it’s made me reevaluate the way in which I speak and communicate in public, alongside my lyrical choice and articulation especially when singing! I’ll keep up reading your blog!
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this article was important to me, I need to improve my voice a little more and I’ll follow the tips. thanks
God damn right!…
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Great Article! Your article is really helpful. I am fond of singing so I am glad to read this awesome article. Thanks for sharing such a helpful article.
Yeah!, I also thought sometimes, I should Improve my writing voice! man, I write for one blog and one time, I wrote one chandler bing’s creepy jokes in an article! I know that’s not funny from editor’s view. But I thought that will be cool and funny! well it’s not! I’m improving myself now and try to avoid my natural insticts that came to my mind while writing. going over my article two three times really works for me!
I’m sure your others tips will also helps me in the same way! Thanks for this great piece of content.
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Thanks for sharing very nice post .