If you spend any amount of time looking up what agents and publishers are looking for in a manuscript, it usually comes down to voice. They say that they want a “unique voice” and that even if you write in a genre they don’t normally represent…sometimes even that roadblock can be overcome with a vivid enough voice. So, what is a writer’s voice and how do you find yours?
Defining Writer’s Voice by What it Isn’t
You read about writer’s voice, but it’s rarely defined. That’s because it has an ephemeral quality to it. Voice is not whether you write in first- or third-person point of view. You can read more about that here: A Crash Course on Point of View. Voice is not the same as style. It’s not technique. It’s not the way you brand yourself. Most of all, it’s not the way your characters talk and think (that’s character voice).
Okay, So What is it Then?
Writer’s voice is YOUR voice. It’s the way you see the world shown in the way you tell the story. It’s in the observations of your characters, the type of plot you create—it’s in your work as a writer. Writer’s voice is not the same as your protagonist’s voice. After all, you’ve written villains as well as heroes, and they don’t need to share your values. However, the world of your imagination comprises your voice, and to find it, you need to be willing to be unapologetically YOU on the page.
I Still Don’t Get It
Writer’s voice is developed by writing more. How do you—YOU—use tone, punctuation, word choice, or observations to tell your story? What do you see or highlight that someone else wouldn’t? Some writers have very distinct styles that their readers can sniff out—even if they’re trying to keep their identity a secret.
JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame tried to transition to adult crime fiction using a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. Although she was outed in an unusual way on Twitter, fans had already begun to suspect it was she who wrote the books. Other authors with notable voices are Hunter S. Thompson (e.g., Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) or Stephen King.
My own favorite is Christopher Moore (e.g., Lamb, Bloodsucking Fiends) who writes comedy fantasy—a genre I would never pick up if left to my own devices. However, I love his hilarious voice, so whether he’s writing an alternative history for Jesus or following vampires in the Bay area, I’m going to buy his next book. Another standout for me is Carl Hiassen who writes comedy crime novels often set in Florida. Hey, maybe I like funny books. Most of all, I like the zany, witty voices of Moore and Hiassen. What do you like?
Read More to Find Your Writer’s Voice
The tip of the day for writers is always to read more. Yes, you need to develop YOUR voice and not do a close approximation of someone else’s, but you also need to be clear about what voice is. When you read, what makes you continue? What makes you want to stop? Are there any books that you loved even though you wouldn’t have normally gone for them? Get analytical. How did the storytelling (not the characters’ voice but rather the writer’s voice) grip you?
Once you’ve identified author’s voice in other works, try it on your own. As you write, let your personality shine through. Let your sense of humor or seriousness or background out in your words. As with writer’s voice or anything else in life, practice makes perfect.