Agents, publishers, and critics all talk about voice like it’s the easiest thing in the world to see and understand. As writers, though, our voices feel slippery and undefined. What is a writer’s voice, and how can you recognize your own?
What It Isn’t
Although your writing technique and style may be recognized as part of your voice’s expression, great writers often change these between projects, so you can’t boil down an author’s voice to their love of short sentences and shocking similes.
I remember reading Shadows by Robin McKinley and the surprise I felt when I realized it was the same author who wrote The Hero and the Crown and Spindle’s End. She had disguised herself as a Millennial. Her vocabulary changed. Her sentence structure adjusted to echo a very different protagonist in a very different world than the lost princesses in her elegant fantasy worlds. But all along, something told me it was still her, still the same voice I knew and loved, even though the style felt like she was speaking to me through a proxy.
What It Is
Your voice is your perspective, your unique experience. Readers discover it over time, across many pieces of writing, and every new story you write will add another shade to your voice’s illustration in reader’s minds. Personality, tone, and rhythm blend to make a writer’s voice. What do you see in the world that’s different from your neighbor’s point of view? Do you tell a lot of jokes, inspire dread, evoke a subtle beauty in the dreadful or mundane? How do your words strike a reader’s ear? These all support and convey voice.
Look for it in Revisions
Voice should be an active part of writing. It is an active, unavoidable element of storytelling. One way or another, it will shape what lands on the page. The trick is learning to see it. Revisions help.
As you weed out clunky phrases and recover forgotten subplots, keep a little notebook at hand. Jot down what you see and feel. Do you like happy endings? Do you like grey protagonists? How do you describe nature, cities, feelings, and shifts? Your voice hides between the lines. It also sits fat and wide on the page, blinking up at you, wondering why you can’t see it.
Seek It in Journals
If you struggle to recognize your own voice, start a journal. If it embodies your own points of view and experience, then writing purely for yourself about your own views and interests should create a concentrate of authorial voice. Over time, look for trends, particular areas of interest, and how your sense of humor manifests itself. This is a great writing exercise, too. Voice manifests most clearly when you’re honest. Write about the scary things, the things that make you angry, and the ugly truths about yourself. Explore happy moments, and distill the purest expressions of joy. You’ll find yourself – and your voice- here.
Voice isn’t as easy to recognize as style, but it’s persistent, and it always speaks from the writer’s heart. The more honest the writer is willing to be, the stronger their voice grows. Look for it in fiction and sharpen it in journals. You already have a voice. Developing it just takes time, patience, and a lot of blood on the page.